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Publication numberUS8211444 B2
Publication typeGrant
Application numberUS 12/282,146
PCT numberPCT/EP2007/001922
Publication dateJul 3, 2012
Filing dateMar 6, 2007
Priority dateMar 9, 2006
Also published asCA2645177A1, CN101400366A, CN101400366B, EP1993603A1, EP1993603B1, US20090186046, WO2007101657A1
Publication number12282146, 282146, PCT/2007/1922, PCT/EP/2007/001922, PCT/EP/2007/01922, PCT/EP/7/001922, PCT/EP/7/01922, PCT/EP2007/001922, PCT/EP2007/01922, PCT/EP2007001922, PCT/EP200701922, PCT/EP7/001922, PCT/EP7/01922, PCT/EP7001922, PCT/EP701922, US 8211444 B2, US 8211444B2, US-B2-8211444, US8211444 B2, US8211444B2
InventorsAnn Fournillier, Genevieve Inchauspe, Laurence Chatel, Francois Penin
Original AssigneeTransgene S.A.
Export CitationBiBTeX, EndNote, RefMan
External Links: USPTO, USPTO Assignment, Espacenet
Hepatitis C virus non structural fusion protein
US 8211444 B2
Abstract
The present invention relates to an isolated fusion protein comprising at least three NS polypeptides originating from a hepatitis C virus which are configured in said fusion protein in an order which is distinct of the order in which they appear in the native configuration. The present invention also relates to a nucleic acid molecule encoding such a fusion protein and a vector comprising such a nucleic acid molecule. The present invention also provides infectious viral particles and host cells comprising such a nucleic acid molecule or such a vector. The present invention also relates to a method for recombinantly producing such a fusion protein. Finally, the present invention also provides a pharmaceutical composition comprising such a fusion protein, a nucleic acid molecule, a vector, infectious viral particles and a host cell as well as the therapeutic use thereof for treating or preventing HCV infections, HCV-associated diseases and pathologic conditions as well as a method of inducing or stimulating an immune response against HCV in a host organism.
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Claims(39)
1. An isolated fusion protein comprising at least three non-structural (NS) polypeptides of hepatitis C virus (HCV), wherein said NS polypeptides are configured in said fusion protein in an order which is distinct from the order in which they appear in the native configuration, wherein NS4A polypeptide is located at the N-terminus.
2. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 1, wherein the fusion between each of the NS polypeptides is direct or through a linker.
3. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 1, wherein all the NS polypeptides originate from the same HCV strain or isolate.
4. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 1, wherein at least two of the NS polypeptides originate from different HCV strains or isolates.
5. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 1, comprising a NS4A polypeptide, a NS3 polypeptide, and a NS5B polypeptide, with NS5B at the C-terminus of said fusion protein.
6. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 1, comprising a NS4A polypeptide, a NS3 polypeptide, a NS4B polypeptide and a NS5B polypeptide with NS5B at the C-terminus of said fusion protein.
7. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein the NS3 polypeptide is modified as compared to a native NS3 polypeptide, so as to exhibit a significantly reduced protease activity.
8. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein the NS3 polypeptide is modified as compared to a native NS3 polypeptide so as to exhibit a significantly reduced helicase activity.
9. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein the NS5B polypeptide is modified as compared to a native NS5B polypeptide so as to exhibit a significantly reduced RNA-dependent RNA polymerase activity.
10. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein said fusion protein does not comprise one or more of the NS3-recognized cleavage site(s) normally present in a native HCV polyprotein precursor at the NS3/NS4A, NS4A/NS4B, NS4B/NS5A and NS5A/NS5B junctions.
11. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein the NS4A, NS4B and/or NS5B polypeptides are modified so as to delete one or more hydrophobic domain(s) which are normally involved in membrane anchorage of the native NS4A, NS4B and/or NS5B polypeptides.
12. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein the NS3 polypeptide originates from the native NS3 protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 1 which is modified at least in such a manner that:
it retains the portion extending from position 12 to position 56, from position 70 to position 155, and from position 218 to position 248;
it comprises the substitution of the His residue in position 57 by an Ala residue;
it comprises the substitution of the Thr residue in position 269 by an Ala residue; and
it comprises the substitution of the Arg residue in position 464 by an Ala residue; and
it does not comprise the Thr residue in position 631.
13. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 12, wherein the NS3 polypeptide comprises the amino acid sequence shown in SEQ ID NO: 5.
14. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 1, wherein the NS4A polypeptide originates from the native NS4A protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 2 which is modified at least in such a manner that:
it contains the portion of SEQ ID NO: 2 from position 21 to position 33;
it does not contain the portion of SEQ ID NO: 2 from position 1 to position 20.
15. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 14, wherein the NS4A polypeptide consists essentially of the amino acid sequence shown in SEQ ID NO: 6 preceded by an initiator Met residue.
16. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein the NS4B polypeptide originates from the native NS4B protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 3 which is modified at least in such a manner that:
it comprises the portion extending from the Ser residue in position 78 to the Leu residue in position 109;
it does not comprise the Cys residue in position 261.
17. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 16, wherein the optional NS4B polypeptide consists essentially of the amino acid sequence as shown in SEQ ID NO: 7.
18. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 5 or 6, wherein the NS5B polypeptide originates from the native NS5B protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 4 which is modified at least in such a manner that:
it comprises the portion extending from the Arg residue in position 155 to the Leu residue in position 182;
it comprises the substitution of the Asp residue in position 220 by an Asn residue;
it comprises the substitution of the Asp residue in position 318 by an Asn residue;
it does not comprise the portion extending from the Trp residue in position 571 to the Arg residue in position 591.
19. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 18, wherein the NS5B polypeptide comprises the amino acid sequence as shown in SEQ ID NO: 8.
20. The isolated fusion protein according to claim 12, wherein said fusion protein comprises the amino acid sequence shown in SEQ ID NO: 9 or 10.
21. An isolated nucleic acid molecule encoding the fusion protein according to claim 1.
22. The isolated nucleic acid molecule according to claim 21, comprising a nucleotide sequence optimized for expression in a mammalian host cell.
23. The isolated nucleic acid molecule according to claim 22, comprising the nucleotide sequences shown in SEQ ID NO: 11 or SEQ ID NO: 12.
24. The isolated nucleic acid molecule according to claim 21, having a nucleotide sequence optimized for expression in a yeast host cell.
25. The isolated nucleic acid molecule according to claim 24, wherein the yeast host cell is selected among the group consisting of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Saccharomyces pombe and Pichia pastoris.
26. The isolated nucleic acid molecule according to claim 25, comprising the nucleotide sequences shown in SEQ ID NO: 13 or SEQ ID NO: 14.
27. The isolated nucleic acid molecule according to claim 21, having a nucleotide sequence optimized for expression in a prokaryotic host cell.
28. The isolated nucleic acid molecule according to claim 27, comprising the nucleotide sequences shown in SEQ ID NO: 15 or SEQ ID NO: 16.
29. A vector comprising one or more copies of the nucleic acid molecule according to claim 21.
30. An isolated infectious viral particle comprising the nucleic acid molecule of claim 21.
31. An isolated infectious viral particle comprising the vector of claim 29.
32. An isolated host cell comprising the nucleic acid molecule of claim 21.
33. An isolated host cell comprising the vector of claim 29.
34. An isolated host cell comprising the infectious viral particle of claim 30.
35. A method for recombinantly producing a fusion protein comprising at least three non-structural (NS) polypeptides of hepatitis C virus (HCV), wherein said NS polypeptides are configured in said fusion protein in an order which is distinct from the order in which they appear in the native configuration, wherein NS4A polypeptide is located at the N-terminus, which comprises:
(a) introducing
a vector or an infectious viral particle comprising one or more copies of a nucleic acid molecule, coding for said fusion protein, into a host cell to produce a transfected or infected host cell comprising said vector or said infectious viral particle,
(b) culturing in-vitro said transfected or infected host cell under a condition suitable for growth of the host cell,
(c) recovering the fusion protein from the host cell culture, and
(d) optionally, purifying the recovered fusion protein.
36. A composition comprising at least one element chosen among:
an isolated fusion protein comprising at least three non-structural (NS) polypeptides of hepatitis C virus (HCV), wherein said NS polypeptides are configured in said fusion protein in an order which is distinct from the order in which they appear in the native configuration, wherein NS4A polypeptide is located at the N-terminus,
an isolated nucleic acid molecule coding for said fusion protein,
an isolated vector comprising one or more copies of said nucleic acid molecule,
an isolated infectious viral particle comprising said nucleic acid molecule, and
an isolated host cell comprising said vector, or comprising said isolated infectious viral particle,
or any combination thereof.
37. A method of inducing or stimulating an immune response against HCV in a host organism comprising administering to said organism a therapeutically effective amount of one element chosen among:
a fusion protein comprising at least three non-structural (NS) polypeptides of hepatitis C virus (HCV), wherein said NS polypeptides are configured in said fusion protein in an order which is distinct from the order in which they appear in the native configuration, wherein NS4A polypeptide is located at the N-terminus,
a nucleic acid molecule coding for said fusion protein,
a vector comprising one or more copies of said nucleic acid molecule,
an isolated infectious viral particle comprising said nucleic acid molecule, or comprising said vector,
a host cell comprising said vector, or comprising said isolated infectious viral particle, and
a composition comprising at least one of the following elements:
said fusion protein,
said nucleic acid molecule,
said vector,
said isolated infectious viral particles, and
said host cell,
or any combination thereof,
so as to induce or stimulate said immune response.
38. A method of inducing or stimulating an immune response against HCV in a host organism comprising administering to said organism a therapeutically effective amount of a composition, said composition comprising at least one of the following elements:
a fusion protein comprising at least three non-structural (NS) polypeptides of hepatitis C virus (HCV), wherein said NS polypeptides are configured in said fusion protein in an order which is distinct from the order in which they appear in the native configuration, wherein NS4A polypeptide is located at the N-terminus,
a nucleic acid molecule coding for said fusion protein,
a vector comprising one or more copies of said nucleic acid molecule,
an isolated infectious viral particle comprising said nucleic acid molecule, or comprising said vector, and
a isolated host cell comprising said vector, or comprising said isolated infectious viral particle,
or any combination thereof,
said composition being used to either prime or boost or both prime and boost an anti-HCV immune response.
39. The method of claim 37, said method being associated to chemotherapy with one or more HCV drugs.
Description

HCV belongs to the Flaviviridae family and is a major cause of acute hepatitis and chronic liver diseases. The HCV viral infection is associated with a high rate (54-86%) of chronicity that, in 5 to 24% of cases, can evolve to cirrhosis and subsequently to hepatocellular carcinoma over a 20- to 30-year period (McHutchinson, 2004, The American Journal of Managed Care 10, S21-29). Currently, in Europe and United States, 20-30% of liver transplantations and 15-33% of liver cancers are attributable to HCV infection. The World Health Organization estimated in 1999 that about 170 million people are chronically infected by HCV worldwide and 3 to 4 millions persons are newly infected each year.

HCV is an enveloped virus with a positive, single-stranded ribonucleic acid (RNA) genome of approximately 9,600 nucleotides which organization is common to all HCV strains and isolates. Translation of the HCV genome in the 0 phase generates a large polyprotein of 3010 to 3030 amino acids according to the genotype that is proteolytically cleaved by viral and cellular proteases to produce 10 viral proteins. The amino-terminal one-third of the polyprotein encodes the virion structural proteins: the Core (C) protein, and envelope glycoproteins E1 and E2. After the structural region comes a small integral membrane protein, p7, which seems to function as an ion channel. The remainder of the genome encodes the nonstructural (NS) proteins NS2, NS3, NS4A, NS4B, NS5A and NS5B, which mediate the intracellular processes of the virus life cycle (Penin, 2004, Hepatology 39, 5-19). HCV also encodes small proteins, called F (frame shift) or ARFP (alternative reading frame protein), that can be produced by ribosomal frame shifting or internal initiation into an alternative +1 reading frame within the core gene (see Branch et al., 2005, Semin. Liver Dis. 25:105-117; and WO2004/069864). The polyprotein encoding sequences are flanked at both extremities by two highly conserved untranslated regions (UTR), 5′UTR and 3′UTR respectively. An internal ribosome entry site, located in 5′UTR allows ribosome fixation for translation initiation whereas the 3′UTR is thought to play an important role in initiating viral replication.

The current standard therapy for chronically infected HCV patients is a combination of pegylated Interferon alpha (PEG-IFN-α) and ribavirin (Fried et al., 2002, N. Engl. J. Med. 347, 975-982). However, this therapy is costly, associated with significant side effects leading to premature ending of treatment in 10% of cases and is inadequate for a significant number of patients (e.g. those with decompensated liver cirrhosis, autoimmune diseases, history of depression and pregnancy). More importantly, only 50% of the treated patients are responders (Falck-Ytter, et al., 2002, Ann. Intern. Med. 136, 288-292) and the response rate is still lower for genotype 1 infected patients (27%-35%).

Overall, a number of experimental evidence is accumulating to emphasize the critical role played by T-cell immunity in the control of HCV infection, particularly CD4+ and CD8+ T-cell mediated responses directed to the non-structural (NS) proteins (e.g. Francavilla et al., 2004, Eur. J. Immunol. 34, 427-37; Grakoui et al., 2003, Science 302, 659-662; Shoukry et al., 2003, J. Exp. Med. 197, 1645-1655; Thimme et al., 2001, J. Exp. Med. 194, 1395-1406; Lechner et al., 2000, J. Exp. Med. 191, 1499-1512; Gerlach, 1999, Gastroenterology 117, 933-941; Folgori et al., 2006, Nat. Med. 12, 190-197). Indeed, vigorous HCV-specific T cell responses are typically observed in patients who recover spontaneously from acute, self-limited hepatitis C whereas T cell responses are weak and narrowly focused in persistently infected patients. On the other hand, the role played by the neutralizing antibodies (B cell-mediated immunity) is much less clear (Logvinoff, 2004, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 101, 10149-54).

Since the discovery of the HCV virus over 15 years ago, there is as yet no vaccine against HCV due to the difficulty of achieving efficient growth of the virus in cell culture and the lack of readily available laboratory models of viral infection. However, a number of vaccine candidates have now emerged (Barth and Baumert, 2004, Novel vaccine strategies, p. 214-227, In State of the Art of Hepatology: Molecular and Cell Biology eds Kluwer Academic Publishers; Inchauspe and Feinstone, 2003, Clin. Liver Dis. 7, 243-259), which are based for example on HCV-derived peptides (Cerny et al., 1995, J. Clin. Invest. 95, 521-30), recombinantly-produced HCV antigens, DNA and virus-based vaccines (Brinster et al., 2001, Hepatology 34, 1206-1217; Forms et al., 2000, Hepatology 32, 618-625) and HCV virus-like particles (Baumert et al., 1999, Gastroenterology 117, 1397-1407; Jeong et al., 2004, J. Virol. 78, 6995-7003). Several candidates are currently evaluated in preclinical models and the first wave is entering clinical trials. The most advanced vaccines currently in phase II use adjuvanted E1 envelope proteins (Innogenetics) and adjuvanted CD4+ and CD8+ T cell epitopes (Intercell).

An approach which has been actively explored during this last decade, resides in the use of polyproteins associating various antigenic domains as immunogens. A vast majority of the prior art polyproteins results from the fusion to one another of antigenic polypeptides, fragments or epitopes originating from various NS HCV proteins in order to form a single and hopefully immunogenic polypeptide. For example, WO01/30812 and WO03/031588 disclose the fusion of HCV polypeptides from NS3 through NS5B to form a single polypeptide encompassing the major NS proteins. WO03/097677 describes the fusion of antigenic fragments of 30 to 70 amino acids originating from NS3, NS4B and NS5B polypeptides. WO2004/046176 discloses a polyprotein comprising Core, NS3, NS4B and NS5B. WO2004/111082 describes adenovirus and MVA vectors for co-expressing NS3, NS4 and NS5B where NS3 and NS4 are expressed as a fusion protein and NS5B is expressed independently.

It has to be noted that the configuration of the prior art polyproteins is as in the native context, the various components appearing in the order in which they naturally occur in the native HCV precursor. In particular, NS3 is followed by NS4 which is followed by NS5. However, the “native” configuration is not optimal in terms of expression and immunogenicity of the resulting polyproteins.

One may expect that HCV will continue to be a serious global health threat for many years due to the chronic and persistent nature of the infection, its high prevalence and the significant morbidity of the associated diseases. Thus, there is an important need to develop more immunogenic polypeptides, expressing vectors, methods for preparation thereof, and uses thereof, for improving prevention and treatment of HCV infections or HCV-associated diseases or disorders.

The present invention relates to fusion proteins involving non-structural (NS) polypeptides arranged in a non-native configuration. Specific fragments of the HCV NS polypeptides (e.g. NS3, NS4A, NS5B and optionally NS4B) were selected and specifically configured in order to optimise the immunogenicity and/or recombinant production process of the resulting fusion proteins. As compared to native NS polypeptides, the novel HCV fusion proteins provided by the present invention or their encoding nucleotide sequences may permit an improvement of an anti-HCV immune response and/or an improvement of the overall cytotoxic response upon introduction in a host organism and/or an improvement of the production of clinical lots. Thus, the invention represents a significant advance in current treatment and prevention of HCV infections or HCV-associated diseases or disorders. In particular, it may be used to reinforce existing therapies or provide an alternative treatment to chronically infected patients, especially to those who are non-responders to conventional therapy.

This technical problem is solved by the provision of the embodiments as defined in the claims.

Other and further aspects, features and advantages of the present invention will be apparent from the following description of the presently preferred embodiments of the invention. These embodiments are given for the purpose of disclosure.

Accordingly, in a first aspect, the present invention provides an isolated fusion protein comprising at least three NS polypeptides which originate from a hepatitis C virus (HCV) wherein said NS polypeptides are configured in said fusion protein in an order which is distinct of the order in which they appear in the native configuration.

As used herein throughout the entire application, the terms “a” and “an” are used in the sense that they mean “at least one”, “at least a first”, “one or more” or “a plurality” of the referenced compounds or steps, unless the context dictates otherwise. For example, the term “a cell” includes a plurality of cells including a mixture thereof.

The term “and/or” wherever used herein includes the meaning of “and”, “or” and “all or any other combination of the elements connected by said term”.

The term “about” or “approximately” as used herein means within 20%, preferably within 10%, and more preferably within 5% of a given value or range.

The terms “amino acids” and “residues” are synonyms and encompass natural amino acids as well as amino acid analogs (e.g. non-natural, synthetic and modified amino acids, including D or L, optical isomers).

The terms “polypeptide”, “peptide” and “protein” are used herein interchangeably to refer to polymers of amino acid residues which comprise ten or more amino acids bonded via peptide bonds. The polymer can be linear, branched or cyclic and may comprise naturally occurring and/or amino acid analogs and it may be interrupted by non-amino acids. As a general indication, if the amino acid polymer is long (e.g. more than 50 amino acid residues), it is preferably referred to as a polypeptide or a protein.

Within the context of the present invention, the terms “nucleic acid”, “nucleic acid molecule”, “polynucleotide” and “nucleotide sequence” are used interchangeably and define a polymer of any length of either polydeoxyribonucleotides (DNA) (e.g., cDNA, genomic DNA, plasmids, vectors, viral genomes, isolated DNA, probes, primers and any mixture thereof) or polyribonucleotides (RNA) molecules (e.g., mRNA, antisense RNA) or mixed polyribo-polydeoxyribinucleotides. They encompass single or double-stranded, linear or circular, natural or synthetic polynucleotides. Moreover, a polynucleotide may comprise non-naturally occurring nucleotides, such as methylated nucleotides and nucleotide analogs (see U.S. Pat. No. 5,525,711, U.S. Pat. No. 4,711,955 or EPA 302 175 as examples of modifications) and may be interrupted by non-nucleotide components. If present, modifications to the nucleotide may be imparted before or after polymerization.

As used herein, when used to define products, compositions and methods, the term “comprising” is intended to mean that the products, compositions and methods include the referenced components or steps, but not excluding others. “Consisting essentially of” shall mean excluding other components or steps of any essential significance. Thus, a composition consisting essentially of the recited components would not exclude trace contaminants and pharmaceutically acceptable carriers. “Consisting of” shall mean excluding more than trace elements of other components or steps. For example, a polypeptide “consists of” an amino acid sequence when the polypeptide does not contain any amino acids but the recited amino acid sequence. A polypeptide “consists essentially of” an amino acid sequence when such an amino acid sequence is present together with only a few additional amino acid residues, typically from about 1 to about 50 or so additional residues. A polypeptide “comprises” an amino acid sequence when the amino acid sequence is at least part of the final amino acid sequence of the polypeptide. Such a polypeptide can have a few up to several hundred additional amino acids residues. Such additional amino acid residues may play a role in polypeptide trafficking, facilitate polypeptide production or purification; prolong half-life, among other things. The same can be applied for nucleotide sequences.

As used herein, the term “isolated” refers to a protein, polypeptide, peptide or a nucleic acid that is purified or removed from its natural environment. The term “purified” refers to a protein, polypeptide, peptide or a nucleic acid that is separated from at least one other component(s) with which it is naturally associated.

“HCV” means “hepatitis C virus”. Extensive phylogenetic analyses have led to the classification of HCV isolates into 6 major genotypes (1 to 6) containing different subtypes (a, b, c, etc. . . . ) (Simmons et al., 2005, Hepatology 42, 962-973). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 1a include without limitation, HCV-1 (Choo et al., 1991, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 88, 2451-2455), -Jl (Okamoto et al., 1992, Nucleic Acids Res. 20, 6410-6410) and −H (Inchauspé et al., 1991, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 88, 10292-10296). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 1b include without limitation, HCV-JA (Kato et al., 1990, Proc. Natl. Acad., Sci. 87, 9524-9528) and BK (Takamizawa et al., 1991, J. Virol. 65, 1105-1113). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 1c include without limitation, HCV-G9 (Okamoto et al., 1994, J. Gen. Virol. 45, 629-635). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 2a include without limitation, HCV-J6 (Okamoto et al., 1991, J. Gen. Virol. 72, 2697-2704). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 2b include without limitation, HCV-J8 (Okamoto et al., 1992, Virology 188, 331-341). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 2c include without limitation, HCV-BEBE1 (Nako et al., 1996, J. Gen. Virol. 141, 701-704). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 3a include without limitation, HCV-NZL1 (Sakamoto et al., 1994, J. Gen. Virol. 75, 1761-1768). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 3b include without limitation, HCV-Tr (Chayama et al., 1994, J. Gen. Virol. 75, 3623-3628). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 4a include without limitation, HCV-ED43 (Chamberlain et al., 1997, J. Gen. Virol. 78, 1341-1347). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 5a include without limitation, HCV-EUH1480 (Chamberlain et al., 1997, Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commum. 236, 44-49). Exemplary HCV isolates of genotype 6a include without limitation, HCV-EUHK2 (Adams et al., 1997, Biochem. Biophys. Res. Commun. 234, 393-396).

The term “fusion” or “fusion protein” as used herein refers to the combination with one another of at least three NS polypeptides (or fragment(s) or variant(s) thereof) in one polypeptide chain. Preferably, the fusion between the various NS polypeptides is performed by genetic means, i.e. by fusing in frame the nucleotide sequences encoding each of the NS polypeptides. By “fused in frame”, it is meant that the expression of the fused coding sequences results in a single protein without any translational terminator between each of the NS polypeptides.

The fusion between each of the NS polypeptides can be direct or through a linker. As used herein, “direct” refers to a fusion between two NS polypeptides without any additional amino acid residues in between (e.g. the codons encoding a NS polypeptide are contiguous to the codons encoding the following NS polypeptide). Alternatively, one may use a linker peptide at the junction of at least two NS polypeptides. The presence of a linker may facilitate correct formation, folding and/or functioning of the fusion protein. The present invention is not limited by the form, size or number of linker sequences employed and multiple copies of a linker sequence may be inserted at the junction between two NS polypeptides. Suitable linkers in accordance with the invention are 3 to 30 amino acids long and composed of repeats of amino acid residues such as glycine, serine, threonine, asparagine, alanine and/or proline (see for example Wiederrecht et al., 1988, Cell 54, 841; Aumailly et al., 1990 FEBS Lett. 262, 82; and Dekker et al., 1993, Nature 362, 852). Representative examples of suitable linkers include a Ser-Gly-Ser (SEQ ID NO:33) linker to connect the N-terminus NS polypeptide to the second NS polypeptide and a Gly-Ser-Gly-Ser-Gly (SEQ ID NO:34) linker to connect the second NS polypeptide to the third NS polypeptide. Alternatively, one may also use HCV-derived sequences to connect one to another two NS polypeptides (e.g. the C-terminal portion of a native NS4A polypeptide extending from approximately position 1691 to approximately position 1711 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein).

“At least three” means a number which is three or greater than three, with a special preference for three or four.

As used herein the term “NS polypeptide” refers to an art-recognized non structural protein, preferably selected among the group consisting of NS2, NS3, NS4A, NS4B and NS5B polypeptides. It is nonetheless preferred that the fusion protein contains no NS5A polypeptide. In the context of the invention the NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention may originate independently from any HCV strain or isolate identified at present time, such as those described above in connection with the term “HCV”. The term “originate” means be isolated, cloned, derived or related. Thus, in accordance with the present invention, each of the NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein may originate from a native NS polypeptide or from a modified NS polypeptide, as further defined below.

A “native” NS polypeptide refers to a NS protein, polypeptide or peptide that can be found or isolated from a source in nature, as distinct from being artificially modified or altered by man in the laboratory. Thus the term “native NS polypeptide” would include naturally-occurring NS polypeptides and fragments thereof. Such sources in nature include biological samples (e.g. blood, plasma or sera from HCV-infected patients or that have been infected in the past by an HCV), cultured cells, as well as recombinant materials (e.g. HCV virus or genome, genomic or cDNA libraries, plasmids containing fragments of HCV genome, recombinant pre-processed precursor or mature processed NS polypeptide and the like). The nucleotide and amino acid sequences of a number of native NS polypeptides/genes have been described in the literature and are available in specialized data banks. Representative examples of native NS polypeptides are set forth at SEQ ID NO: 1-4 (SEQ ID NO: 1-4 provide the amino acid sequences of the native NS3, NS4A, NS4B and NS5B polypeptides of the genotype 1b HCV JA strain). However, native NS polypeptides are not limited to these exemplary sequences. Indeed the amino acid sequences can vary between different HCV genotypes, subtypes and isolates and this natural scope of genetic variation is included within the scope of the invention.

One or more of the NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention can independently from each other include one or more amino acid modification(s) from the exemplary sequences or other native NS polypeptides. Modification(s) can be generated by way of mutation and/or addition of chemical moieties (e.g. alkylation, acetylation, amidation, phosphorylation and the like) or labeling moieties. Mutation(s) include deletion, substitution or addition of one or more amino acid residue(s) or any combination of these possibilities. When several modifications are contemplated, they can concern consecutive residues and/or non consecutive residues. Modification(s) can be made in a number of ways known to those skilled in the art. For example the nucleotide sequence encoding the NS polypeptide can be modified using routine recombinant techniques, such as enzymatic cutting followed by modification and ligation of defined fragment, site-directed mutagenesis (e.g. using the Sculptor™ in vitro mutagenesis system of Amersham, Les Ullis, France), PCR mutagenesis or DNA shuffling.

A preferred modified NS polypeptide retains a high degree of amino acid sequence identity with the corresponding native NS polypeptide, e.g. at least 75% of identical amino acid residues over the full length amino acid sequence or a shorter fragment thereof (e.g. of at least 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, 40, 50, 100 amino acids in length). More specifically, in the context of the invention, the modified NS polypeptide in use in the invention share a degree of identity with the corresponding native NS polypeptide which is greater than 75%, advantageously greater than 80%, desirably greater than 85%, preferably greater than 90%, more preferably greater than 95%, still more preferably greater than 97%. The percent identity between the two polypeptides is a function of the number of identical positions shared by the sequences, taking into account the number of gaps which need to be introduced for optimal alignment and the length of each gap. Various computer programs and mathematical algorithms are available in the art to determine percentage identities between amino acid sequences such as for example the Blast program (e.g. Altschul et al., 1997, Nucleic Acids Res. 25, 3389-3402; Altschul et al., 2005, FEBS J. 272, 5101-5109) available at NCBI.

For example, any or all of the NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention can be modified so as to be representative of a specific genotype or subtype, and thus comprise an amino acid sequence corresponding to a consensus or a near-consensus sequence which is typically determined after sequence alignment of various NS of a particular genotype or subtype. Any or all of the NS polypeptides can also be modified to provide a NS polypeptide with modified functional properties, such as a reduced enzymatic function, and/or a reduced ability to be anchored in a cell membrane and/or a reduced ability to be post-translationally processed, as described below. Amino acids that are critical for such functional properties may be identified by routine methods, such as by structural and functional analysis. One of skill in the art can readily determine the type of modification(s) that is able to reduce or disrupt a given enzymatic activity. For example, one may proceed by site-directed mutagenesis or PCR techniques in order to delete or substitute one or more amino acid(s) within an active region of the enzymatic activity (e.g. in the catalytic site) such that the native enzymatic activity is significantly reduced or abolished. The reduction or lack of a biological activity can be easily determined in appropriate assays according to the enzymatic activity to be tested using methods known to those of skill in the art. Membrane anchorage domains are usually predicted on the basis of their hydrophobic nature.

In accordance with the present invention, the at least three NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention are configured in an order which is distinct of the order in which they appear in the native configuration. The native configuration is known in the art (see the overview given in the introduction section of the present application) and the order in which the NS polypeptides appear is as found in a HCV polyprotein precursor, i.e. from the N to the C-terminus NS2-NS3-NS4A-NS4B-NS5A-NS5B. According to the native configuration:

    • A NS2 polypeptide always precedes a NS3 polypeptide or a NS4A polypeptide or a NS4B polypeptide or a NS5A polypeptide or a NS5B polypeptide; and
    • A NS3 polypeptide always precedes a NS4A polypeptide or a NS4B polypeptide or a NS5A polypeptide or a NS5B polypeptide; and
    • A NS4A polypeptide always precedes a NS4B polypeptide or a NS5A polypeptide or a NS5B polypeptide; and
    • A NS4B polypeptide always precedes a NS5A polypeptide or a NS5B polypeptide; and
    • A NS5A polypeptide always precedes a NS5B polypeptide.

In the fusion protein of the invention, the configuration is not native in the sense that at least one of the NS polypeptides appears in an order which is distinct from that of the native configuration. Thus, if the fusion protein comprises a NS3 polypeptide, a NS4A polypeptide and a NS5B polypeptide, the native configuration would be NS3-NS4A-NS5B with NS3 at the N-terminus and NS5B at the C-terminus. In contrast, a non-native configuration can be NS5B-NS3-NS4A, NS5B-NS4A-NS3, NS4A-NS3-NS5B, NS4A-NS5B-NS3 or NS3-NS5B-NS4A.

In particular, the fusion protein of the invention comprises at least one of the followings:

    • A NS4A polypeptide fused directly or through a linker to the N-terminus of a NS3 polypeptide;
    • A NS3 polypeptide fused directly or through a linker to the N-terminus of a NS5B polypeptide;
    • A NS4B polypeptide fused directly or through a linker to the N-terminus of a NS5B polypeptide;
    • A NS4A polypeptide fused directly or through a linker to the N-terminus of a NS3 polypeptide which is fused directly or through a linker to the N-terminus of a NS4B polypeptide; and/or
    • A NS3 polypeptide fused directly or through a linker to the N-terminus of a NS4B polypeptide which is fused directly or through a linker to the N-terminus of a NS5B polypeptide.

In such specific portions of the fusion protein of the invention, each of the NS polypeptides can be independently native or modified. For example, the NS4A polypeptide included in the NS4A-NS3 portion can be native whereas the NS3 polypeptide comprises at least one of the modifications described below.

In one embodiment, all the NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention originate from the same HCV strain or isolate. Alternatively, at least two of the NS polypeptides originate from different HCV strains or isolates in order to provide protection against a broader range of HCV genotypes. It could be also interesting to adapt the fusion protein to the specific geographic region where it will be used by including at least one NS polypeptide from a HCV isolate that is endemic in this region (e.g. genotypes 1a, 1b, 2 and 3 are the most prevalent in North America, Europe and Asia; genotype 4 is predominant in North and Central Africa; genotype 5 has so far been mostly identified in South Africa and genotype 6 isolates have been found primarily in Vietnam and Hong Kong). For example, if the fusion protein comprises a NS3 polypeptide, a NS4A polypeptide and a NS5B polypeptide, the NS3 polypeptide can originate from a first strain of HCV, and the NS4A and NS5B polypeptides from a second strain of HCV. Alternatively, the NS4A polypeptide can originate from a first strain of HCV, and the NS3 and NS5B polypeptides from a second strain of HCV. Alternatively, the NS5B polypeptide can originate from a first strain of HCV, and the NS3 and NS4A polypeptides from a second strain of HCV. Alternatively, NS3, NS4A and NS5B polypeptides each originate from different HCV strains. When the fusion protein of the invention also comprises a NS4B polypeptide, it can originate from the same HCV strain or from a different HCV strain than the other polypeptides.

Preferred embodiments of the invention are directed to a fusion which comprises, or essentially consists of, or consists of a NS4A polypeptide, a NS3 polypeptide, and a NS5B polypeptide with NS4A at the N-terminus and NS5B at the C-terminus (NS4A-3-5B fusion). Optionally, the fusion may also include a NS4B polypeptide (or fragment(s) or variant(s) thereof) to further improve the immunogenic activity of the resulting fusion protein. The NS4B polypeptide is preferably included between the NS3 and the NS5B polypeptides. Therefore, the present invention also pertains to a fusion protein which comprises, or essentially consists of, or consists of a NS4A polypeptide, a NS3 polypeptide, a NS4B polypeptide and a NS5B polypeptide with NS4A at the N-terminus and NS5B at the Cry terminus (NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion). Apart from the NS3, NS4A, NS5B and the optional NS4B polypeptides, it is nonetheless preferred that the fusion protein of the invention contains no other HCV polypeptides, and especially no core and as discussed above in connection with the NS polypeptides no NS5A polypeptide.

More specifically, the term “NS3 polypeptide” refers to a native NS3 protein, polypeptide or peptide obtained from any HCV strain or to a modified NS3 protein, polypeptide or peptide as defined above. The NS3 polypeptide in use in the invention has a length of at least 200 amino acids, advantageously at least 300 amino acids, preferably at least 400 amino acids, more preferably at least 500 amino acids and even more preferably at least 600 amino acids. For purpose of illustration, the native HCV-1 NS3 protein is 631 amino acids long and is located approximately from positions 1027 to 1657 in the polyprotein precursor. A native NS3 polypeptide comprises two distinct active domains, a serine protease domain in the N-terminus and a helicase domain in the C-terminus. NS3 protease is responsible for processing the HCV polyprotein precursor at NS3/NS4A, NS4A/NS4B, NS4B/NS5A and NS5A/NS5B junctions, and requires NS4A as a cofactor for proteolytic activity (Tomei et al., 1993, J. Virol. 67, 4017-4026) and for proper folding (Yao et al., 1999, Structure (London) 7 pp 1353). A motif consisting of an aspartic or glutamic acid at position 6 and a cysteine or threonine at position 1 upstream from the cleavage site and a serine or alanine at position 1 downstream the cleavage site is specifically recognized by the HCV NS3 protease. The NS3 helicase is thought to be important for unwinding the double-stranded RNA intermediate during viral replication (Tai et al., 1996, J. Virol. 70, 8477-8484).

By a “NS4A polypeptide”, it is meant a native NS4A protein, polypeptide or peptide from any HCV strain or a modified NS4A protein, polypeptide or peptide as defined above. The NS4A polypeptide in use in the invention has a length of at least 10 amino acids, advantageously at least 11 amino acids, preferably at least 12 amino acids, more preferably at least 13 amino acids. By a “NS4B polypeptide”, it is meant a native NS4B protein, polypeptide or peptide from any HCV strain or a modified NS4B protein, polypeptide or peptide as defined above. The NS4B polypeptide in use in the invention has a length of at least 20 amino acids, advantageously at least 25 amino acids, preferably at least 30 amino acids, more preferably at least 31 amino acids and even more preferably at least 32 amino acids. For purpose of illustration, the native HCV-1 NS4 (A-B) protein is 315 amino acids long and is located approximately from positions 1658 to 1972 in the polyprotein precursor. The NS4A polypeptide (positions 1658 to 1711) is a co-factor of NS3 protease but is also required for NS3 stability and localization in the endoplasmic reticulum (ER) membrane (Failla et al., 1994, J. Virol. 68, 3753-3760). The NS4B polypeptide (positions 1712 to 1972) is an integral membrane protein which function is yet unknown. Predicted algorithms suggest the presence of four to six trans-membrane segments. Its expression however induces the formation of a seemingly ER-derived membranous web (Egger et al., 2002, J. Virol. 76, 5974-5984).

By a “NS5B polypeptide”, it is meant a native NS5B protein, polypeptide or peptide from any HCV strain or a modified NS5B protein, polypeptide or peptide as defined above. The NS5B polypeptide in use in the invention has a length of at least 200 amino acids, advantageously at least 300 amino acids, preferably at least 400 amino acids, more preferably at least 500 amino acids and even more preferably at least 550 amino acids. For purpose of illustration, the native HCV-1 NS5B protein is 591 amino acids long and is located approximately from positions 2421 to 3011 in the polyprotein precursor. The native NS5B protein acts as a RNA-dependent RNA polymerase, which presumably permits the synthesis of a negative stranded RNA intermediate and positive-stranded progeny copies (Lohman et al., 1997, J. Virol. 71, 8416-8428). It is found associated to the endoplasmic reticulum membrane by its 21 C-terminus amino acid sequence (Schmidt-Mende et al., 2001, J. Biol. Chem. 276, 44052-44063).

For sake of clarity, the amino acid stretches referred herein in connection with NS3, NS4A, NS4B and NS5B polypeptides are given with respect to their positions in HCV-1 polyprotein precursor (as described by Choo et al., 1991, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 88, 2451-2455 or in GenBank under accession number M62321). However, as discussed above, the present invention also encompasses NS polypeptides of other HCV strains and isolates, as well as modified NS polypeptides. Therefore, unless the context clearly dictates otherwise, when it is referred herein to a NS polypeptide or a peptide thereof by reference to HCV-1 polyprotein precursor, this means the NS polypeptide or the peptide thereof of HCV-1, a NS polypeptide or the peptide thereof of any other HCV strain or isolate or a modified NS polypeptide or peptide thereof. A preferred embodiment of the present invention is directed to a fusion protein comprising the NS3, NS4A, NS5B and the optional NS4B polypeptides originating from the genotype 1b HCV JA strain (Kato et al., 1990, Proc. Natl. Acad., Sci. 87, 9524-9528).

In one embodiment, the NS3 polypeptide included in the fusion protein of the present invention is modified as compared to the corresponding native NS3 polypeptide so as to exhibit a significantly reduced protease activity, and thus be unable to mediate the cleavage of the fusion protein into individual polypeptides. The protease activity has been located in the N-terminal portion of the NS3 polypeptide, from about position 1027 to about position 1207 numbered relative to the full-length HCV-1 polyprotein (from about position 1 to about position 181 of the native HCV-JA NS3 polypeptide shown SEQ ID NO: 1). More specifically, the NS3 protease activity has been attributed to the catalytic triad residues His (H) at position 1083, Asp (D) at position 1107 and Ser (S) at position 1165 (respectively positions 57, 81 and 139 of SEQ ID NO: 1). Representative examples of suitable protease-deficient NS3 polypeptides are described in Bartenshlager et al., 1993, J. Virol. 67, 3835-3844 and Tomei et al., 1993, J. Virol. 67, 4017-4026. Preferably, as the catalytic Asp and Ser residues lie within a predicted antigenic domain, the NS3 polypeptide in use in the present invention comprises the substitution of the His residue in position 1083 (corresponding to position 57 of SEQ ID NO: 1) or of the amino acid residue located in an equivalent position of a native NS3 polypeptide of another HCV serotype, to any amino acid residue other than His, with a special preference for a substitution to an Ala residue (H1083A). The disruption of the protease activity can be determined using assays well known in the art (Takeshita et al., 1997, Anal. Biochem. 247, 242-246; Kakiuchi et al., 1997 J. Biochem 122, 749-755; Sali et al., 1998, Biochemistry 37, 3392-3401; Kakiuchi et al., 1999, J. Virol. Meth. 80, 77-84).

Alternatively or in combination, the NS3 polypeptide included in the fusion protein of the invention is modified as compared to the corresponding native NS3 polypeptide so as to exhibit a significantly reduced helicase activity. Four residues have been involved in the NS3-associated helicase activity, respectively Thr in position 1295, Thr in position 1437, Arg in position 1490 and Arg in position 1493 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (which corresponds to Thr residues in positions 269 and 411 and Arg residues at positions 464 and 467 of the native HCV-JA NS3 polypeptide shown in SEQ ID NO: 1). Representative examples of suitable helicase-deficient NS3 polypeptides are described in Kim et al. (1997, J. Virol. 71, 9400) and Lin and Kim (1999, J. Virol. 73, 8798-8807). Preferably, the NS3 polypeptide in use in the present invention comprises the substitution of the Arg residue in position 1490 (corresponding to position 464 of SEQ ID NO: 1) or of the amino acid residue located in an equivalent position of a native NS3 polypeptide of another HCV serotype to any amino acid residue other than Arg and the substitution of the Thr residue in position 1295 (corresponding to position 269 of SEQ ID NO: 1) or of the amino acid residue located in an equivalent position of a native NS3 polypeptide of another HCV serotype to any amino acid residue other than Thr, with a special preference for a substitution to an Ala residue in both cases (T1295A and R1490A). The disruption of the helicase activity can be determined using assays well known in the art, e.g. by evaluating the unwinding activity.

Most preferably, the NS3 polypeptide in use in the present invention is mutated to reduce or disrupt both the protease and the helicase activities of the native NS3 polypeptide and comprise the modifications discussed above in connection with these enzymatic functions, with a special preference for mutations H1083A, T1295A and R1490A.

Alternatively or in combination with the modifications proposed above in connection with the NS3 polypeptide, the NS5B polypeptide included in the fusion protein of the invention is modified as compared to the corresponding native NS5B polypeptide so as to exhibit a significantly reduced RNA-dependent RNA polymerase activity. Two Asp residues have been involved in this enzymatic function, respectively in positions 2640 and 2738 numbered relative to the hill length HCV-1 polyprotein (which corresponds to Asp residues in positions 220 and 318 of the native HCV-JA NS5B polypeptide shown in SEQ ID NO: 4). Representative examples of suitable polymerase-deficient NS5B polypeptides are described in Lohmann et al. (1997, J. Virol. 71, 8416-8428). Preferably, the NS5B polypeptide in use in the present invention comprises at least the substitution of the Asp residue in position 2640 (corresponding to position 220 of SEQ ID NO: 4) or of the amino acid residue located in an equivalent position of a native NS5B polypeptide of another HCV serotype to any amino acid residue other than Asp and/or the substitution of the Asp residue in position 2738 (corresponding to position 318 of SEQ ID NO: 4) or of the amino acid residue located in an equivalent position of a native NS5B polypeptide of another HCV serotype to any amino acid residue other than Asp, with a special preference for a substitution to an Asn residue in both cases. The disruption of the RNA polymerase activity can be determined using assays well known in the art, e.g. conventional replicase assays based on incorporation of radioactive nucleotide substrate into a nascent RNA product (see for example Behrens et al., 1996, EMBO J. 15, 12-22; Ferrari et al., 1999, J. Virol. 73, 1649-1654).

In another embodiment, the NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention may further comprise additional modifications as compared to the corresponding native NS polypeptides. Suitable modifications are those which are beneficial to the processing, stability and solubility of the resulting fusion protein, e.g. those aimed to inactivate potential cleavage sites, membrane anchorage and/or glycosylation as described below.

Advantageously, the fusion protein of the invention does not comprise one or more of the NS3-recognized cleavage site(s) normally present in the native HCV polyprotein precursor at the NS3/NS4A, NS4A/NS4B, NS4B/NS5A and NS5A/NS5B junctions, in order to avoid the processing into individual NS polypeptides. Although the preferred NS3 polypeptide in use in the present invention exhibits a significantly reduced protease activity, inactivation of the NS3-recognized cleavage sites introduces a further degree of security. The consensus sequence of cleavage site is Asp/Glu-X4-Cys/Thr-Ser/Ala, wherein X is any amino acid residue. The cleavage by the native NS3 polypeptide was shown to occur after the Cys/Thr residue. Preferably, the NS3 polypeptide in use in the invention does not comprise the Thr or Cys residue normally present at the C-terminus of a native NS3 polypeptide (position 1657 numbered relative to the HCV-1 polyprotein which corresponds to position 361 of SEQ ID NO: 1 or an equivalent position of a native NS3 polypeptide of another HCV serotype). Alternatively or in combination, the NS4A polypeptide does not comprise the Cys residue normally present at the C-terminus of a native NS4A polypeptide (position 1711 numbered relative to the HCV-1 polyprotein which corresponds to position 54 of SEQ ID NO: 2 or an equivalent position of a native NS4A polypeptide of another HCV serotype). Alternatively or in combination, the optional NS413 polypeptide does not comprise the Cys residue normally present at the C-terminus of a native NS4B polypeptide (position 1972 numbered relative to the HCV-1 polyprotein which corresponds to position 261 of SEQ ID NO: 3 or an equivalent position of a native NS4B polypeptide of another HCV serotype).

In still another embodiment, the fusion protein of the invention may be further modified so as to delete one or more hydrophobic domain(s) which are normally involved in membrane anchorage of the native NS4A, NS4B and/or NS5B polypeptides. Six membrane-anchorage hydrophobic domains have been identified in the native NS4B polypeptide whereas one is present in the N-terminus portion of the native NS4A polypeptide and one in the C-terminal portion of the NS5B native polypeptide. Their at least partial deletion may permit to improve the solubility of the fusion protein and thus facilitate its production by recombinant means. This may also permit to limit the overall cytotoxicity of the fusion protein as compared upon administration of the individual HCV polypeptides in a given host organism.

In this respect, the NS4A polypeptide is advantageously modified by deletion or substitution of one or more hydrophobic amino acid residues normally present within the N-terminal portion of the native NS4A polypeptide. A preferred NS4A polypeptide is deleted of up to 20 first amino acids at the N-terminus (e.g. preferred deletion from approximately position 1658 to approximately position 1677 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein which corresponds to deletion from approximately position 1 to approximately position 20 of the native HCV-JA NS4A polypeptide shown in SEQ ID NO: 2) while nevertheless retaining the portion of the native NS4A polypeptide extending from approximately position 1678 to approximately position 1690 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (from approximately position 21 to approximately position 33 of the native HCV-JA NS4A polypeptide shown in SEQ ID NO: 2). It may or may not retain the C-terminal portion of the native NS4A polypeptide, e.g. the portion extending from approximately position 1691 to approximately position 1711 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (which corresponds to from approximately position 34 to approximately position 54 of the native HCV-JA NS4A polypeptide shown in SEQ ID NO: 2). Most preferably, the NS4A polypeptide included in the fusion protein of the invention consists of the portion of a native NS4A polypeptide extending from position 1678 to position 1690 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein, (which corresponds to the NS4A portion extending from position 21 to position 33 of the native HCV-JA NS4A polypeptide shown SEQ ID NO: 2).

Alternatively or in combination, a preferred NS5B polypeptide is deleted of 10 to 30 amino acid residues normally present at the C-terminus of a native NS5B polypeptide, with a special preference for deletion of the last 21 C-terminus amino acid residues (e.g. from position 2991 to position 3011 numbered relative to the HCV-1 polyprotein which corresponds from position 571 to position 591 of SEQ ID NO: 4).

Alternatively or in combination, a preferred optional NS4B polypeptide is deleted of at least one of the six membrane-anchorage hydrophobic domains. More preferably, the optional NS4B polypeptide is truncated by one or more amino acids at both the N- and C-terminus of the corresponding native NS4B polypeptide so as to essentially retain the internal antigenic domain. Preferably, the optional NS4B polypeptide in use in the invention comprises or alternatively essentially consists of the amino acid stretch extending from approximately position 1789 to approximately position 1820 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (which corresponds to approximately position 78 to approximately position 109 of the native HCV-J NS4B polypeptide shown in SEQ ID NO: 3).

In still another embodiment, the fusion protein of the invention is further modified so as to suppress potential N-glycosylation upon expression in a given host cell. In this regard, a consensus glycosylation site Asn-Val-Ser-Val has been identified in the native NS5B polypeptide from position 2789 to position 2792 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (position 369 to position 372 of the native HCV-JA NS5B protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 4). An exemplary mutation in this regard consists in the substitution of the Ser residue in position 2791 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (position 371 of SEQ ID NO: 4) by a residue different of a Ser residue, such as a Gly residue.

Desirably, the fusion protein of the invention is immunogenic, in the sense that it is capable of inducing or stimulating an antigen-specific immune response, whether humoral or cellular or both-upon introduction in a host organism. The present invention also encompasses fusion proteins that have been engineered so as to enhance immunogenicity (e.g. by disulfide bond oxidation). Desirably, the folding of the various NS polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention is as the folding of the native NS polypeptides. In the context of the invention, it is preferred that the fusion protein retains one or more antigenic domains recognized by a T cell receptor. A number of HCV antigenic domains that can be suitably retained in the fusion protein are described in the literature (see, e.g., Chien et al., 1992, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 89, 10011-10015; Chien et al., 1993, J. Gastroent. Hepatol. 8, S33-39 and WO03/097677).

Preferably, the NS3 polypeptide included in the fusion protein of the invention retains the portions of the native NS3 polypeptide extending from approximately position 1038 to approximately position 1082, from approximately position 1096 to approximately position 1181 and from approximately position 1244 to approximately position 1274 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (e.g. from approximately position 12 to approximately position 56, from approximately position 70 to approximately position 155, and/or from approximately position 218 to approximately position 248 of the native HCV-JA NS3 polypeptide disclosed in SEQ ID NO: 1). Preferably, the NS5B polypeptide included in the fusion protein of the invention retains the portion of the native NS5B polypeptide extending from approximately position 2573 to approximately position 2601 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (e.g. from approximately position 155 to approximately position 182 of the native HCV-J NS5B polypeptide disclosed in SEQ ID NO: 4). When the fusion protein of the invention comprises a NS4B polypeptide, it preferably retains the portion of the native NS4B polypeptide from approximately position 1789 to approximately position 1820 numbered relative to the full length HCV-1 polyprotein (e.g. from approximately position 78 to approximately position 109 of the native HCV-J NS4B polypeptide disclosed in SEQ ID NO: 3).

The immunogenic activity of the fusion protein of the invention can be evaluated by a number of techniques which are routine in the art, such as those described hereinafter in connection with the method of the invention or illustrated in Examples. In the context of the invention, it is preferred that the immunogenic activity of the fusion protein be greater in extend and/or in nature than the usual immunogenic activity provided by a native NS polypeptide. For example, upon introduction of the fusion protein in a host organism, the immune response may be of a greater strength, of a broader nature (e.g. involving more immune cells such as CD4+ and CD8+ cells) or its scope may be different (e.g. directed to a non-dominant cryptic epitope) than upon introduction of a native NS polypeptide. This would provide an enhanced therapeutic effect, thus allowing reducing dosing regimens and improving (quality of life.

A preferred NS3 polypeptide originates from the native HCV-JA NS3 protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 1 which is modified at least in such a manner that:

    • it retains the portion extending from position 12 to position 56, from position 70 to position 155, and from position 218 to position 248;
    • it comprises the substitution of the His residue in position 57 by an amino acid residue different of a His, such as an Ala residue;
    • it comprises the substitution of the Thr residue in position 269 by an amino acid residue different of a Thr, such as an Ala residue; and
    • it comprises the substitution of the Arg residue in position 464 by an amino acid residue different of an Arg, such as an Ala residue; and
    • it does not comprise the Thr, residue in position 631.

Even more preferably, the NS3 polypeptide in use in the invention comprises, essentially consists of or alternatively consists of the amino acid sequence shown in SEQ ID NO: 5.

A preferred NS4A polypeptide originates from the native HCV-JA NS4A protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 2 which is modified at least in such a manner that:

    • it contains the portion of SEQ ID NO: 2 from position 21 to position 33;
    • it does not contain the portion of SEQ ID NO: 2 from position 1 to position 20;

Even more preferably, the NS4A polypeptide has an amino acid sequence which consists essentially of the portion of SEQ ID NO: 2 from position 21 to position 33 preceded by an initiator Met residue. Most preferably, the NS4A polypeptide consists essentially of the amino acid sequence shown in SEQ ID NO: 6 preceded by an initiator Met residue.

A preferred optional NS4B polypeptide originates from the native HCV-JA NS4B protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 3 which is modified at least in such a manner that:

    • it comprises the portion extending from the Ser residue in position 78 to the Leu residue in position 109;
    • it does not comprise the Cys residue in position 261.

Even more preferably, the optional NS4B polypeptide consists essentially or alternatively consists of the amino acid sequence as shown in SEQ ID NO: 7.

A preferred NS5B polypeptide originates from the native HCV-JA NS5B protein shown in SEQ ID NO: 4 which is modified at least in such a manner that:

    • it comprises the portion extending from the Arg residue in position 154 to the Leu residue in position 182;
    • it comprises the substitution of the Asp residue in position 220 by an amino acid residue different of an Asp, such as an Asn residue;
    • it comprises the substitution of the Asp residue in position 318 by an amino acid residue different of an Asp, such as an Asn residue; and
    • it does not comprise the portion extending from the Trp residue in position 571 to the Arg residue in position 591.

Even more preferably, the NS5B polypeptide comprises, consists essentially of or alternatively consists of the amino acid sequence as shown in SEQ ID NO: 8.

Most preferred fusion proteins of the invention comprise, or alternatively consist essentially of, or alternatively consist of an amino acid sequence which is homologous or identical to the amino acid sequence recited in SEQ ID NO: 9 or 10. The sequence recited in SEQ ID NO: 9 (FIG. 1) corresponds to the fusion of the preferred NS4A, NS3 and NS5B polypeptides described above, with a N-terminal initiator Met in position 1, the NS4A polypeptide extending from amino acid residue 2 to amino acid residue 14, the linker peptide extending from amino acid residue 15 to amino acid residue 17, the NS3 polypeptide extending from amino acid residue 18 to amino acid residue 647, the linker extending from amino acid residue 648 to amino acid residue 652 and the NS5B polypeptide extending from amino acid residue 653 to amino acid residue 1222. The sequence recited in SEQ ID NO: 10 (FIG. 2) corresponds to the fusion of the most preferred NS4A, NS3, NS4B and NS5B polypeptides described above, with a N-terminal initiator Met in position 1, the NS4A polypeptide extending from amino acid residue 2 to amino acid residue 14, the linker peptide extending from amino acid residue 15 to amino acid residue 17, the NS3 polypeptide extending from amino acid residue 18 to amino acid residue 647, the NS4B polypeptide extending from amino acid residue 648 to amino acid residue 679 and the NS5B polypeptide extending from amino acid residue 680 to amino acid residue 1249.

Further included in the scope of the present invention are novel peptide fragments of the fusion proteins of the invention, and especially of those recited in SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10. As used herein, a fragment comprises at least 10, 15, 20, 50 or more contiguous amino acid residues from the fusion proteins disclosed herein. Such fragments can be chosen based on their ability to perform a function, e.g. to bind a substrate or to act as an immunogen. Suitable peptide fragments are typically those comprising a domain or motif of the fusion protein containing novel immunogenic structures. Predicted immunogenic domains are readily identifiable by computer programs well known and readily available to those of skill in the art. Peptide fragments of the invention can be synthesized using known protein synthesis methods.

The fusion protein of the present invention and peptide fragments thereof can be produced by any suitable method, for example, by standard direct peptide synthesizing techniques (e.g. Bodanszky, 1984 in Principles of peptide synthesis, Springer-Verlag) and by recombinant DNA technology as described below in connection with the vectors of the invention.

Thus, the present invention also provides an isolated nucleic acid molecule encoding the fusion protein of the invention, with a special preference for nucleic acid molecules which encode a fusion protein comprising or alternatively consisting essentially of, or alternatively consisting of an amino acid sequence as shown in SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10 or an amino acid sequence homologous to SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10.

Desirably the nucleic acid molecules of the invention are optimized for providing high level expression in a particular host cell, e.g. mammalian, yeast (e.g. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Saccharomyces pombe or Pichia pastoris) or prokaryotic (e.g. E. coli) host cells. It has been indeed observed that, when more than one codon is available to code for a given amino acid, the codon usage patterns of organisms are highly non-random (see for example Wada et al., 1992, Nucleic Acids Res. 20, 2111-2118) and the utilisation of codons may be markedly different between different hosts (see for example Nakamura et al., 1996, Nucleic Acids Res. 24, 214-215). As the NS-encoding nucleotide sequences used in the invention are of viral origin (HCV), they may have an inappropriate codon usage pattern for efficient expression in host cells such as bacterial or lower eukaryotic cells.

Typically, codon optimisation is performed by replacing one or more “native” (e.g. HCV) codon corresponding to a codon infrequently used in this particular host cell by one or more codon encoding the same amino acid which is more frequently used. This can be achieved by conventional mutagenesis or by chemical synthetic techniques (e.g. resulting in a synthetic nucleic acid molecule). It is not necessary to replace all native codons corresponding to infrequently used (codons since increased expression can be achieved even with partial replacement. Moreover, some deviations from strict adherence to optimised codon usage may be made to accommodate the introduction of restriction site(s) into the resulting nucleic acid molecule.

Further to optimization of the codon usage, expression in the host cell can further be improved through additional modifications of the nucleotide sequence. For example, the nucleic acid molecule of the invention can be modified so as to prevent clustering of rare, non-optimal codons being present in concentrated areas and/or to suppress or modify at least partially negative sequence elements which are expected to negatively influence expression levels. Such negative sequence elements include without limitation the regions having very high (>80%) or very low (<30%) GC content; AT-rich or GC-rich sequence stretches; unstable direct or inverted repeat sequences; RNA secondary structures; and/or internal cryptic regulatory elements such as internal TATA-boxes, chi-sites, ribosome entry sites, and/or splicing donor/acceptor sites.

The optimized nucleic acid molecule of the invention is preferably capable of expressing the fusion protein of the invention in a given host cell at a higher level, i.e. at least 110%, advantageously at least 150% and preferably at least 200%, as compared to the level expressed by a nucleic acid molecule involving the corresponding native HCV genes under identical conditions (e.g. same cell type, same culture conditions, same expression vector, etc.). Expression levels can be evaluated by conventional techniques such as Western blotting using an antibody specific for one of the HCV polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the invention.

According to a preferred embodiment, the present invention provides nucleic acid molecules which comprise, or alternatively consist essentially of, or alternatively consist of a nucleotide sequence which is homologous or even more preferably identical to any of the nucleotide sequences shown in SEQ ID NO: 11-16. The nucleic acid molecule of SEQ ID NO: 11 encodes a NS4A-3-5B fusion protein which nucleotide sequence has been optimised for expression in mammalian (e.g. human) cells. The nucleic acid molecule of SEQ ID NO: 12 encodes a NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion which nucleotide sequence has been optimised for expression in mammalian (e.g. human cells). The nucleic acid molecule of SEQ ID NO: 13 encodes a NS4A-3-5B fusion which nucleotide sequence has been optimised for expression in yeast (e.g. P. pastoris). The nucleic acid molecule of SEQ ID NO: 14 encodes a NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion which nucleotide sequence has been optimised for expression in yeast (e.g. P. pastoris. The nucleic acid molecule of SEQ ID NO: 15 encodes a NS4A-3-5B fusion which nucleotide sequence has been optimised for expression in prokaryote (e.g. E. coli). The nucleic acid molecule of SEQ ID NO: 16 encodes a NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion which nucleotide sequence has been optimised for expression in prokaryote (e.g. E. coli). Of course, the sequences may be equipped with 5′ and 3′ non coding sequences providing if needed an initiator Met at 5′ end, one or more STOP codons at the 3′ end and suitable restriction sites at both extremities to facilitate clonage steps. Exemplary nucleic acid molecules are also provided in FIGS. 3-8.

The present invention also pertains to nucleic acid molecules which are capable of hybridizing under stringent conditions to the nucleic acid molecules as defined above. Stringent hybridization conditions are known to those skilled in the art. Typically, hybridization is performed in 6 times sodium chloride/sodium citrate (SSC) at about 45° C., and is followed by one or more washes in 0.2 times SSC, 0.1% SDS at 50-65° C. Preferably, such hybridizing nucleic acids share a degree of sequence identity with the above-defined nucleic acid molecules greater than 70% over the full length nucleotide sequence or a shorter fragment thereof (e.g. of at least 30, 45, 50, 60, 80, 100, 150, 200 nucleotides in length). More preferably, the degree of identity between them is greater than 70%, advantageously greater than 80%, desirably greater than 85%, preferably greater than 90%, more preferably greater than 95%, still more preferably greater than 97%.

Representative examples of such hybridizing nucleic acid molecules include without limitation, nucleic acid molecules which are complementary to at least about 20, 30, 40, 50, 100, or 150 contiguous nucleotides included in any of SEQ ID NOs: 11-16 (e.g. antisense nucleic acid molecules). Variations of the exemplary sequences, such as degenerate codons, or polymorphism between different isolates/strains of HCV or variations resulting from techniques such as DNA shuffling are also encompassed by the present invention.

Another embodiment of the invention pertains to fragments of the nucleic acid molecule of the invention, e.g. restriction endonuclease and PCR-generated fragments. Such fragments can be used as probes, primers or fragments encoding an immunogenic portion of the fusion protein.

The nucleic acid molecule of the present invention can be generated using sequence data accessible in the art and the sequence information provided herein. The DNA sequence coding for each of the HCV polypeptides included in the fusion protein of the present invention can be isolated directly from HCV-containing cells, cDNA and genomic libraries, viral genomes or any prior art vector known to include it, by conventional molecular biology or PCR techniques, and, if needed, can further be modified by routine mutagenesis techniques, (e.g. to optimize expression in a particular host cell, to comply with a genotype or subtype-specific sequence, as described above). Fusing the sequences encoding each of the HCV polypeptides may be accomplished for example, by ligation in-frame either directly or through a sequence encoding a peptide linker. Alternatively, the nucleic acid molecule of the invention can also be generated by chemical synthesis in automatised process (e.g. assembled from overlapping synthetic oligonucleotides as described for example in Edge, 1981, Nature 292, 756; Nambair et al., 1984, Science 223, 1299; Jay et al., 1984, J. Biol. Chem. 259, 6311).

Also provided by the present invention is a vector comprising one or more copies of the nucleic acid molecule(s) of the invention. For example, it may be advantageous to include in the same vector nucleic acid molecules encoding fusion proteins originating from different genotypes or subtypes.

The term “vector” as used herein refers to both expression and non-expression vectors and includes viral as well as non viral vectors, including extrachromosomal vectors (e.g. multicopy plasmids) and integrating vectors designed for being incorporated into the host chromosome(s). Particularly important in the context of the invention are vectors for use in gene therapy (i.e. which are capable of delivering the nucleic acid molecule to a host organism) as well as expression vectors for use in various expression systems.

A variety of host-vector systems may be used to express the fusion protein of the invention, including prokaryotic organisms such as bacteria (e.g. E. coli or Bacillus subtilis) transformed with bacteriophage, plasmid or cosmid vectors containing the fusion-encoding nucleic acid molecule; yeast (e.g. Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Saccharomyces pombe, Pichia pastoris) transformed with yeast expression vectors containing the fusion-encoding nucleic acid molecule; insect cell systems (e.g. Sf 9 cells) infected with virus expression vectors (e.g. baculovirus) containing the fusion-encoding nucleic acid molecule; plant cell systems infected with virus expression vectors (e.g. cauliflower mosaic virus CaMV; tobacco mosaic virus TMV) or transformed with plasmid expression vectors (e.g. Ti plasmid) containing the fusion-encoding nucleic acid molecule; or mammalian cell systems (e.g. cultured cells) transfected or infected with plasmid or virus expression vectors containing the fusion-encoding nucleic acid molecule.

Suitable vectors for use in prokaryotic systems include without limitation pBR322 (Gibco BRL), pUC (Gibco BRL), pbluescript (Stratagene), p Poly (Lathe et al., 1987, Gene 57, 193-201), pTrc (Amann et al., 1988, Gene 69, 301-315); pET lid (Studier et al., 1990, Gene Expression Technology: Methods in Enzymology 185, 60-89); pIN (Inouye et al., 1985, Nucleic Acids Res. 13, 3101-3109; Van Heeke et al., 1989, J. Biol. Chem. 264, 5503-5509); and pGEX vectors where the nucleic acid molecule of the invention can be expressed in fusion with glutathione S-transferase (GST). The plasmid pGEX-2T (Amersham Biosciences Product code: 27-4801-01, Genbank accession No. U13850) is particularly suitable in the content of the invention.

Suitable vectors for expression in yeast (e.g. S. cerevisiae) include, but are not limited to pYepSec1 (Baldari et al., 1987, EMBO J. 6, 229-234), pMFa (Kujan et al., 1982, Cell 30, 933-943), pJRY88 (Schultz et al., 1987, Gene 54, 113-123), pYES2 (Invitrogen Corporation, San Diego, Calif.) and pTEF-MF (Dualsystems Biotech Product code: P03303).

The vectors suited for expression in mammalian host cells can be of viral or non viral (e.g. plasmid DNA) origin. Suitable plasmid vectors include, without limitation, pREP4, pCEP4 (Invitrogene), pCI (Promega), pCDM8 (Seed, 1987, Nature 329, 840) and pMT2PC (Kaufman et al., 1987, EMBO J. 6, 187-195), pVAX and pgWiz (Gene Therapy System Inc; Himoudi et al., 2002, J. Virol. 76, 12735-12746).

Moreover, the host vector systems used in the context of the present invention may also comprise one or more additional element(s) enabling maintenance, propagation or expression of the nucleic acid molecule of the present invention in the host cell. Such additional elements include without limitation marker gene(s) in order to facilitate identification and isolation of the recombinant host cells (e.g. by complementation of a cell auxotrophy or by antibiotic resistance), stabilising elements (e.g. cer sequence as described in Summers and Sherrat, 1984, Cell 36, 1097-1103 and DAP system as described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,198,343), and integrative elements (e.g. LTR viral sequences and transposons).

Suitable marker genes for expression in prokaryotic host cells include tetracycline and ampicillin-resistance genes. Also, resistance genes can be used for expression in mammalian host cells such as dihydrofolate reductase (dhfr) which confers resistance to methotrexate (Wigler et al., 1980, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 77, 3567; O'Hare et al., 1981, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 78, 1527); gpt which confers resistance to mycophenolic acid (Mulligan and Berg, 1981, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 78, 2072); neo which confers resistance to the aminoglycoside G-418 (Colberre-Garapin et al., 1981, J. Mol. Biol. 150, 1); zeo which confers resistance to zeomycin, kana which confers resistance to kanamycin and hygro, which confers resistance to hygromycin (Santerre et al., 1984, Gene 30, 147). URA3 and LEU2 genes can be used for expression in yeast systems, which provide for complementation of ura3 or leu2 yeast mutants. In particular, the URA3 gene from which its promoter has been deleted may advantageously be used.

A member of viral-based expression systems can also be utilized in the context of the invention derived from a variety of different viruses (e.g. retrovirus, adenovirus, AAV, poxvirus, herpes virus, measle virus, foamy virus and the like). As used herein, the term “viral vector” encompasses vector DNA as well as viral particles generated thereof. Viral vectors can be replication-competent, or can be genetically disabled so as to be replication-defective or replication-impaired. The term “replication-competent” as used herein encompasses replication-selective and conditionally-replicative viral vectors which are engineered to replicate better or selectively in specific host cells (e.g. tumoral cells).

Such vectors include for example adenoviral vectors which have a number of well-documented advantages for gene transfer or for recombinant production (for a review, see “Adenoviral vectors for gene therapy”, 2002, Ed D. Curiel and J. Douglas, Academic Press). The adenoviral vectors for use in accordance with the present invention can be derived from a variety of human or animal sources. Any serotype can be employed from the adenovirus serotypes 1 through 51, with a special preference for human adenoviruses 2 (Ad2), 5 (Ad5), 6 (Ad6), 11 (Ad11), 24 (Ad24) and 35 (Ad35). The cited adenovirus are available from the American Type Culture Collection (ATCC, Rockville, Md.), and have been the subject of numerous publications describing their sequence, organization and methods of producing, allowing the artisan to apply them (see for example U.S. Pat. No. 6,133,028; U.S. Pat. No. 6,110,735; WO 02/40665; WO 00/50573; EP 1016711; Vogels et al., 2003, J. Virol. 77, 8263-8271).

In one embodiment, the adenoviral vector of the present invention is replication-competent. Examples of such replication-competent adenoviral vectors are well known in the art and readily available to those skill in the art (see, for example, Hernandez-Alcoceba et al., 2000, Human Gene Ther. 11, 2009-2024; Nemunaitis et al., 2001, Gene Ther. 8, 746-759; Alemany et al., 2000, Nature Biotechnology 18, 723-727). Suitable replication-competent adenoviral vectors for use in the invention can be engineered from a wild-type adenovirus genome by deletion in the E1A CR2 domain to abrogate binding to the Rb (see for example WO00/24408) and/or by replacement of the native E1 and/or E4 promoters with tissue, tumor or cell status-specific promoters (see for example U.S. Pat. No. 5,998,205, WO99/25860, U.S. Pat. No. 5,698,443, WO00/46355, WO00/15820 and WO01/36650).

In another embodiment, the adenoviral vector of the invention is replication-defective (see for example WO94/28152; Lusky et al., 1998, J. Virol 72, 2022-2032). Preferred replication-defective adenoviral vectors are E1-defective (see for example U.S. Pat. No. 6,136,594 and U.S. Pat. No. 6,013,638), with an E1 deletion extending from approximately positions 459 to 3328 or from approximately positions 459 to 3510 (by reference to the sequence of the human adenovirus type 5 disclosed in the GeneBank under the accession number M 73260 and in Chroboczek et al., 1992, Virol. 186, 280-285). The cloning capacity can further be improved by deleting additional position(s) of the adenoviral genome (all or part of the non essential E3 region or of other essential E2, E4 regions).

The nucleic acid molecule of the present invention can be inserted in any location of the adenoviral genome. Preferably, it is inserted in replacement of the E1 region. It may be positioned in sense or antisense orientation relative to the natural transcriptional direction of the region in question.

Other suitable viral vectors are derived from poxviruses (see for example Cox et al. in “Viruses in Human Gene Therapy” Ed J. M. Hos, Carolina Academic Press). In the context of the present invention, a poxviral vector may be obtained from any member of the poxviridae, in particular canarypox, fowlpox and vaccinia virus, the latter being preferred. Suitable vaccinia viruses include without limitation the Copenhagen strain (Goebel et al., 1990, Virol. 179, 247-266 and 517-563; Johnson et al., 1993, Virol. 196, 381-401), the Wyeth strain and the modified Ankara (MVA) strain (Antoine et al., 1998, Virol. 244, 365-396). The general conditions for constructing recombinant poxvirus are well known in the art (see for example EP 206 920; Mayr et al., 1975, Infection 3, 6-14; Sutter and Moss, 1992, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 89, 10847-10851; U.S. Pat. No. 6,440,422). The nucleic acid molecule of the present invention is preferably inserted within the poxviral genome in a non-essential locus. Thymidine kinase gene is particularly appropriate for insertion in Copenhagen vaccinia vectors (Hruby et al., 1983, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 80, 3411-3415; Weir et al., 1983, J. Virol. 46, 530-537) and deletion II or III for insertion in MVA vector (Meyer et al., 1991, J. Gen. Virol. 72, 1031-1038; Sutter et al., 1994, Vaccine 12, 1032-1040).

According to a preferred embodiment, the vectors of the invention comprise the nucleic acid molecule of the invention in a form suitable for its expression in a host cell or organism, which means that the nucleic acid molecule is placed under the control of one or more regulatory sequences, appropriate to the vector and/or the host cell. As used herein, the term “regulatory sequence” refers to any sequence that allows, contributes or modulates the expression of a nucleic acid molecule in a given host cell, including replication, duplication, transcription, splicing, translation, stability and/or transport of the nucleic acid or one of its derivative (i.e. mRNA) into the host cell. It will be appreciated by those skilled in the art that the choice of the regulatory sequences can depend on such factors as the host cell, the level of expression desired, etc.

The promoter is of special importance and suitable promoters useful in the context of the present invention include constitutive promoters which direct expression of the nucleic acid molecule in many types of host cell and those which direct expression of the nucleotide sequence only in certain host cells (e.g., liver-specific regulatory sequences) or in response to specific events or exogenous factors (e.g. by temperature, nutrient additive, hormone or other ligand).

Promoters suitable for expression in E. Coli host cell include, but are not limited to, the bacteriophage lambda pL promoter, the lac, TRP and IPTG-inducible pTAC promoters. Promoters suitable for expression in yeast include the TEF (Mumberg et al., 1995, Gene 156, 119-122), PGK (Hitzeman et al., 1983, Science 219, 620-625), MF alpha (Inokuchi et al., 1987, Mol. Cell. Biol. 7, 3185-3193), CYC-1 (Guarente et al, 1981, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 78, 2199), GAL-1, GAL4, GAL10, PHO5, glyceraldehyde-3-phosphate dehydrogenase (GAP or GAPDH), and alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH) (Denis et al., 1983, J. Biol. Chem. 25, 1165) promoters. For expression in poxviral vectors, one may use the vaccinia 7.5K, H5R, TK, p28, p11 or K1L promoter, the synthetic promoters described in Chakrabarti et al. (1997, Biotechniques 23, 1094-1097), Hammond et al. (1997, J. Virological Methods 66, 135-138) and Kumar and Boyle (1990, Virology 179, 151-158) as well as early/late chimeric promoters. Promoters suitable for constitutive expression in mammalian cells include the cytomegalovirus (CMV) immediate early promoter (Boshart et al., 1985, Cell 41, 521-530), the adenovirus major late promoter, the phosphoglycero kinase (PGK) promoter (Adra et al., 1987, Gene 60, 65-74), and the thymidine kinase (TK) promoter of herpes simplex virus (HSV)-1. Inducible eukaryotic promoters regulated by exogenously supplied compounds, include without limitation, the zinc-inducible metallothionein (MT) promoter (Mc Ivor et al., 1987, Mol. Cell Biol. 7, 838-848), the dexamethasone (Dex)-inducible mouse mammary tumor virus (MMTV) promoter, the T7 polymerase promoter system (WO 98/10088), the ecdysone insect promoter (No et al., 1996, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 93, 3346-3351), the tetracycline-repressible promoter (Gossen et al., 1992, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 89, 5547-5551), the tetracycline-inducible promoter (Kim et al., 1995, J. Virol. 69, 2565-2573), the RU486-inducible promoter (Wang et al., 1997, Nat. Biotech. 15, 239-243 and Wang et al., 1997, Gene Ther. 4, 432-441) and the rapamycin-inducible promoter (Magari et al., 1997, J. Clin. Invest. 100, 2865-2872).

Tissue-specific promoters may also be used, especially those permitting to target the HCV-infected cells where therapeutic benefit is desired. Suitable promoters include liver-specific promoters such as those of HMG-CoA reductase (Luskey, 1987, Mol. Cell. Biol. 7, 1881-1893); sterol regulatory element 1 (SRE-1; Smith et al., 1990, J. Biol. Chem. 265, 2306-2310); albumin (Pinkert et al., 1987, Genes Dev. 1, 268-277); phosphoenol pyruvate carboxy kinase (PEPCK) (Eisenberger et al., 1992, Mol. Cell Biol. 12, 1396-1403); human C-reactive protein (CRP) (Li et al., 1990, J. Biol. Chem. 265, 4136-4142); human glucokinase (Tanizawa et al., 1992, Mol. Endocrinology 6, 1070-1081); cholesterol 7-alpha hydroylase (CYP-7) (Lee et al., 1994, J. Biol. Chem. 269, 14681-14689); alpha-1 antitrypsin (Ciliberto et al., 1985, Cell 41, 531-540); insulin-like growth factor binding protein (IGFBP-1) (Babajko et al., 1993, Biochem Biophys. Res. Comm. 196, 480-486); human transferrin (Mendelzon et al., 1990, Nucleic Acids Res. 18, 5717-5721); collagen type I (Houglum et al., 1994, J. Clin. Invest. 94, 808-814) and FIX (U.S. Pat. No. 5,814,716) genes.

Additional promoters suitable for use in this invention can be obtained from genes that are preferentially expressed in proliferative tumor cells, such as the promoters of the alpha-foetoprotein gene overexpressed in liver cancers (Kanai et al., 1997, Cancer Res. 57, 461-465), the telomerase reverse transcriptase (TERT) (WO99/27113, WO 02/053760 and Horikawa et al., 1999, Cancer Res. 59, 826), and hypoxia-responsive element (HRE).

Those skilled in the art will appreciate that the regulatory elements controlling the expression of the nucleic acid molecule of the invention may further comprise additional elements for proper initiation, regulation and/or termination of transcription (e.g. polyA transcription termination sequences), in RNA transport (e.g. nuclear localization signal sequences), processing (e.g. splicing signals), and stability (e.g. introns and non-coding 5′ and 3′ sequences), translation (e.g. peptide signal, propeptide, tripartite leader sequences, ribosome binding sites, Shine-Dalgamo sequences, etc.) into the host cell or organism and purification steps (e.g. a tag).

For example, a signal peptide, eventually in combination with a pro peptide, may be used for facilitating secretion of the fusion protein in the culture medium. The signal peptide is typically inserted at the N-terminus of the fusion protein immediately after the Met initiator, and, if needed, the pro peptide is inserted downstream the signal peptide. The choice of signal and/or pro peptides is wide and is accessible to persons skilled in the art. Examples of signal/pro peptides appropriate for the present invention include, but are not limited to, the signal peptide sequences of the mating factor (MF) alpha (Kurjan and Herskowitz, 1982, Cell 30, 933-934 and U.S. Pat. No. 5,879,926); invertase (WO84/01153); PHO5 (DK 3614/83); YAP3 (yeast aspartic protease 3; WO95/02059); and BAR1 (WO87/02670). During entry into the ER, the signal peptide is cleaved off the precursor polypeptide at a processing site. The processing site can comprise any peptide sequence that is recognized by a host cell proteolytic enzyme. Examples of preferred processing sites include, but are not limited to, any combination of the two basic residues Lys and Arg (with a special preference for Lys-Arg) which are cleaved by the endopeptidase encoded by the KEX2 gene of Saccharomyces cerevisiae (see Fuller et al., 1986, Microbiology, 273-278) or the equivalent protease of other yeast species (see Julius et al., 1983, Cell 32, 839-852).

A peptide tag (e.g. a short peptide sequence able to be recognized by available antisera) may be used for facilitating purification of the recombinant fusion protein from the host cell or culture supernatant. Preferably, the tag is inserted at the C-terminus of the fusion protein. Exemplary tags include without limitation His tag (e.g. composed of 6 or more histidine residues), peptide sequence from glutathione-S-transferase (GST) from S. mansoni, maltose binding protein (MPB) from E. Coli, human alkaline phosphatase, the FLAG octapeptide, and e-tag (U.S. Pat. No. 6,686,152).

A preferred embodiment of the invention is directed to a shuttle plasmid for expression in yeast comprising the nucleic acid molecule of the invention (e.g. the nucleotide sequence of SEQ ID NO: 13 and 14) placed under the control of the TEF promoter and an appropriate transcriptional terminator sequence (e.g. cytochrome eye terminator) which further comprises origins of replication for E. coli and yeast host cells (e.g. ORI and 2μ respectively), selection markers suitable for expression in E. coli (e.g. ampicillin resistance gene) and yeast (e.g. auxotrophy URA3 and leu2-3).

Another preferred embodiment of the invention is directed to a pGEX plasmid suitable for expression in E. coli comprising the nucleic acid molecule of the invention (e.g. the nucleotide sequence of SEQ ID NO: 15 and 16) placed under the control of the IPTG-inducible pTAC promoter and an appropriate transcriptional terminator sequence which further comprises a suitable origin of replication for E. coli (e.g. OR1), and a suitable selection marker (e.g. ampicillin resistance gene).

Still another preferred embodiment of the invention is directed to a replication-defective adenoviral vector for expression in mammalian cells comprising the nucleic acid molecule of the invention (e.g. the nucleotide sequence of SEQ ID NO: 11 and 12) placed under appropriate regulatory elements. Preferably the replication defective adenoviral vector is an Ad5 genome E1 and E3 deleted, with E1 deletion extending from approximately nucleotide 459 to approximately nucleotide 3511 and E3 deletion from approximately nucleotide 28592 to approximately nucleotide 30470. A preferred adenoviral vector comprises Ad5 sequences from approximately nucleotide 1 to approximately nucleotide 458, the expression cassette containing, from 5′ to 3′, the CMV immediate-early enhancer/promoter, a chimeric human β-globin/IgG intron (as found in pCI vector available in Promega), the sequence encoding either of the two polyprotein forms (SEQ ID NO: 11 or 12) and the SV40 late polyadenylation signal followed by Ad5 sequence from approximately nucleotide 3512 to approximately nucleotides 28592 and from approximately nucleotide 30470 to approximately nucleotide 35935.

If needed, the vector of the invention can further comprise one or more transgene(s), e.g. a gene of interest to be expressed together with the nucleic acid molecule of the invention in a host cell or organism. Desirably, the expression of the transgene has a therapeutic or protective activity to an HCV-associated disease or condition. Suitable transgene include without limitation cytokine encoding genes (e.g. IL-2, IL-7, IL-15, IL-18, IL-21, IFNg), toxin-encoding genes (e.g. ricin, diphtheria toxin, cholera toxin), suicide genes, and especially the genes encoding TK HSV-1 (Caruso et al., 1993, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 90, 7024-7028) which is to be used in combination with acyclovir or ganciclovir prodrug, cytosine deaminase (CDase), uracil phosphoribosyl transferase (UPRTase) which are to be used in combination with the prodrug 5-fluorocytosine (5-FC). The FCU-1 gene product (described in WO 99/54481) is particularly useful in this context. If a transgene is used, it is placed under the control of appropriate regulatory elements and can be inserted in any location of the vector of the invention or in an independent vector which is used in combination with the vector of the invention.

Inserting the nucleic acid molecule of the invention into a vector backbone can be performed by routine molecular biology, e.g. as described in Sambrook et al. (2001, Molecular Cloning-A Laboratory Manual, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory). Insertion into an adenoviral vector or a poxviral vector can be performed through homologous recombination as described respectively in Chartier et al. (1996, J. Virol. 70, 4805-4810) and Paul et al. (2002, Cancer gene Ther. 9, 470-477).

The present invention also encompasses vectors (e.g. plasmid DNA) complexed to lipids or polymers to form particulate structures such as liposomes, lipoplexes or nanoparticles. Such technologies are available in the art (see for example Arangoa et al., 2003, Gene Ther. 10: 5-14; Eliaz et al., 2002, Gene Ther. 9, 1230-1237 and Betageri et al., 1993, “Liposome drug delivery systems”, Technomic Publishing Company, Inc)

In another embodiment, the present invention provides infectious viral particles comprising the above-(described nucleic acid molecules or vectors of the present invention.

Typically, such viral particles are produced by a process comprising the steps of:

(a) introducing the viral vector of the invention into a suitable cell line,

(b) culturing said cell line under suitable conditions so as to allow the production of said infectious viral particle,

(c) recovering the produced infectious viral particle from the culture of said cell line, and

(d) optionally purifying said recovered infectious viral particle.

When the viral vector is defective, the infectious particles are usually produced in a complementation cell line or via the use of a helper virus, which supplies in trans the non functional viral genes. For example, suitable cell lines for complementing E1-deleted adenoviral vectors include the 293 cells (Graham et al., 1997, J. Gen. Virol. 36, 59-72) as well as the PER-C6 cells (Fallaux et al., 1998, Human Gene Ther. 9, 1909-1917). Cells appropriate for propagating poxvirus vectors are avian cells, and most preferably primary chicken embryo fibroblasts (CEF) prepared from chicken embryos obtained from fertilized eggs.

The infectious viral particles may be recovered from the culture supernatant or from the cells after lysis. They can be further purified according to standard techniques (chromatography, ultracentrifugation in a cesium chloride gradient as described for example in WO96/27677, WO98/00524, WO98/22588, WO98/26048, WO00/40702, EP1016700 and WO00/50573).

The present invention also encompasses vectors or viral particles that have been modified to allow preferential targeting to a particular target cell (see for example Wickam et al., 1997, J. Virol. 71, 8221-8229; Arnberg et al., 1997, Virol. 227, 239-244; Michael et al., 1995, Gene Therapy 2, 660-668; WO94/10323; WO02/96939 and EP 1 146 125). A characteristic feature of targeted vectors and viral particles of the invention is the presence at their surface of a ligand capable of recognizing and binding to a cellular and surface-exposed component such as a cell-specific marker (e.g. an HCV-infected cell), a tissue-specific marker (e.g. a liver-specific marker), as well as a viral (e.g. HCV) antigen. Examples of suitable ligands include antibodies or fragments thereof directed to an HCV antigenic domain. Cell targeting can be carried out by genetically inserting the ligand into a polypeptide present on the surface of the virus (e.g. adenoviral fiber, penton, pIX or vaccinia p14 gene product).

The invention also relates to host cells which comprise the nucleic acid molecules, vectors or infectious viral particles of the invention described herein. In the context of the present invention, the term “host cell” should be understood broadly without any limitation concerning particular organization in tissue, organ, or isolated cells. Such cells may be of a unique type of cells or a group of different types of cells and encompass cultured cell lines, primary cells and proliferative cells.

In the context of the invention, host cells include prokaryotic cells, lower eukaryotic cells such as yeast, and other eukaryotic cells such as insect cells, plant and mammalian (e.g. human or non-human) cells. Preferred E. coli host cells include without limitation E. coli BL21 (available at Amersham Biosciences). Preferred yeast host cells include without limitation S. cerevisiae, S. pombe, Pichia pastoris, with a special preference for KEX-2 expressing yeast cells such as TGY47.1 (or its isogenic Leu+ convertant TGY73.4) strain described in EP 607 080 and those described in U.S. Pat. No. 5,879,926, U.S. Pat. No. 5,162,208 and U.S. Pat. No. 6,103,515. Preferred mammalian host cells include without limitation BHK (baby hamster kidney), CV-1 (African monkey kidney cell line), COS (e.g., COS-7) cells, chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells, mouse NIH/3T3 cells, HeLa cells and Vero cells. Host cells also encompass complementing cells capable of complementing at least one defective function of a replication-defective vector of the invention (e.g. adenoviral vector) such as 293 and PERC.6 cells.

According to a specific embodiment of the invention, the host cell can be further encapsulated. Cell encapsulation technology has been previously described (Tresco et al., 1992, ASAIO J. 38, 17-23; Aebischer et al., 1996, Human Gene Ther. 7, 851-860).

Still a further aspect of the present invention is a method for recombinantly producing the fusion protein, employing the vectors, infectious viral particles and/or host cells of the invention. The method for producing the fusion protein comprises (a) introducing a vector or an infectious viral particle of the invention into a suitable host cell to produce a transfected or infected host cell, (b) culturing in-vitro said transfected or infected host cell under conditions suitable for growth of the host cell, (c) recovering the fusion protein from the cell culture, and (d) optionally, purifying the recovered fusion protein.

It is expected that those skilled in the art are knowledgeable in the numerous expression systems available for producing the fusion proteins of the invention in appropriate host cells and of the methods for introducing a vector or an infectious viral particle into a host cell. Such methods include, but are not limited to, microinjection (Capechi et al., 1980, Cell 22, 479-488), CaPO4-mediated transfection (Chen and Okayama, 1987, Mol. Cell. Biol. 7, 2745-2752), DEAE-dextran-mediated transfection, electroporation (Chu et al., 1987, Nucleic Acid Res. 15, 1311-1326), lipofection/liposome fusion (Felgner et al., 1987, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 84, 7413-7417), particle bombardment (Yang et al., 1990, Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA 87, 9568-9572), gene guns, transduction, viral infection as well as direct administration into a host organism via various means.

The vectors of the invention can be used in association with transfection reagents in order to facilitate introduction of the vector in the host cell, such as polycationic polymers (e.g. chitosan, polymethacrylate, PEI, etc) and cationic lipids (e.g.DC-Chol/DOPE, transfectam lipofectin now available from Promega). Moreover, as discussed above, recombinant DNA technologies can be used to improve expression of the nucleic acid molecule in the host cell, e.g. by using high-copy number vectors, substituting or modifying one or more transcriptional regulatory sequences (e.g. promoter, enhancer and the like), optimising the codon usage of the fusion-encoding nucleic acid molecule to the host cell, and suppressing negative sequences that may destabilize the transcript.

Host cells of the present invention can be cultured in conventional fermentation bioreactors, flasks, and petri plates. Culturing can be carried out at a temperature, pH and oxygen content appropriate for a given host cell. No attempts to describe in detail the various methods known for the production of proteins in prokaryote and eukaryote cells will be made here. Production of the fusion protein can be periplasmic, intracellular or secreted outside the host cell (e.g. in the culture medium).

Where the fusion protein is not secreted outside the producing host cell or where it is not secreted completely, it can be recovered by standard lysis procedures, including freeze thaw, sonication, mechanical disruption, use of lysing agents and the like. If secreted, it can be recovered directly from the culture medium.

The fusion protein can then be purified by well-known purification methods including ammonium sulfate precipitation, acid extraction, gel electrophoresis, filtration and chromatographic methods (e.g. reverse phase, size exclusion, ion exchange, affinity, phosphocellulose, hydrophobic-interaction, hydroxylapatite, or high performance liquid chromatography). The conditions and technology used to purify a particular fusion protein of the invention will depend on factors such as net charge, molecular weight, hydrophobicity, hydrophilicity and will be apparent to those having skill in the art. Moreover, the level of purification will depend on the intended use. It is also understood that depending upon the producing host cell, the fusion proteins can have various glycosylation patterns, or may be non-glycosylated (e.g. when produced in bacteria).

In another aspect, this invention provides a composition comprising the fusion protein, the nucleic acid molecule, the vector, the infectious viral particle, the host cell of the invention (also referred herein to “active agent”) or any combination thereof (e.g. combination of fusion proteins or vectors/viral particles encoding fusion proteins of different genotypes or subtypes). Preferably, the composition is a pharmaceutical composition which comprises further to a therapeutically effective amount of the active agent(s), a pharmaceutically acceptable vehicle. As used herein a “therapeutically effective amount” is a dose sufficient for the alleviation of one or more symptoms normally associated with the disease or condition desired to be treated. When prophylactic use is concerned, this term means a dose sufficient to prevent or to delay the establishment of a disease or condition. For example, a therapeutically effective amount for inducing an immune response could be that amount necessary to cause activation of the immune system (e.g. resulting in the development of an anti-HCV response).

As used herein, a “pharmaceutically acceptable vehicle” is intended to include any and all carriers, solvents, diluents, excipients, adjuvants, dispersion media, coatings, antibacterial and antifungal agents, and absorption delaying agents, and the like, compatible with pharmaceutical administration.

Suitably, the pharmaceutical composition of the invention comprises a diluent appropriate for human or animal use. It is preferably isotonic, hypotonic or weakly hypertonic and has a relatively low ionic strength. Representative examples include sterile water, physiological saline (e.g. sodium chloride), Ringer's solution, glucose, trehalose or saccharose solutions, Hank's solution, and other aqueous physiologically balanced salt solutions (see for example the most current edition of Remington: The Science and Practice of Pharmacy, A. Gennaro, Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins). The composition of the invention is suitably buffered in order to be appropriate for human use at a physiological or slightly basic pH (e.g. between about pH 7 to about pH 9). Suitable buffers include without limitation phosphate buffer (e.g. PBS), bicarbonate buffer and/or Tris buffer.

The composition can also contain other pharmaceutically acceptable excipients for providing desirable pharmaceutical or pharmacodynamic properties, including for example modifying or maintaining the pH, osmolarity, viscosity, clarity, colour, sterility, stability, rate of dissolution of the formulation, modifying or maintaining release or absorption into an the human or animal organism, promoting transport across the blood barrier or penetration in a particular organ (e.g. liver). Suitable excipients include amino acids.

The pharmaceutically acceptable vehicles included in the composition of the invention must also permit to preserve its stability under the conditions of manufacture and long-term storage (i.e. at least one month) at freezing (e.g. −70° C., −20° C.), refrigerated (e.g. 4° C.) or ambient temperatures. In this respect, formulations which are particularly adapted to the composition of the invention include:

    • 1M saccharose, 150 mM NaCl, 1 mM MgCl2, 54 mg/l Tween 80, 10 mM Tris pH 8.5 (especially when the active agent is an adenoviral vector), and
    • 10 mg/ml mannitol, 1 mg/ml HSA, 20 mM Tris, pH 7.2, and 150 mM NaCl physiological saline

In addition, the composition of the invention may comprise one or more adjuvant(s) suitable for systemic or mucosal application in humans. Preferably, the adjuvant is capable of stimulating immunity to the composition of the invention, especially a T cell-mediated immunity e.g. through the toll-like receptors (TLR), such as TLR-7, TLR-8 and TLR-9. Representative examples of useful adjuvants include without limitation alum, mineral oil emulsion such as Freunds complete and incomplete (IFA), lipopolysaccharide or a derivative thereof (Ribi et al., 1986, Immunology and Immunopharmacology of Bacterial Endotoxins, Plenum Publ. Corp., NY, p407-419), saponins such as QS21 (Sumino et al., 1998, J. Virol. 72, 4931-4939; WO 98/56415), imidazo-quinoline compounds such as Imiquimod (Suader, 2000, J. Am Acad Dermatol. 43, S6-S11) and related compound S-27609 (Smorlesi, 2005, Gene Ther. 12, 1324-1332), cytosine phosphate guanosine oligodeoxynucleotides such as CpG (Chu et al., 1997, J. Exp. Med. 186: 1623; Tritel et al., 2003, J. Immunol. 171: 2358-2547) and catatonic peptides such as IC-31 (Kritsch et al., 2005, J. Chromatogr Anal. Technol Biomed Life Sci 822, 263-270).

The composition of the present invention may be administered by a variety of modes of administration, including systemic, topical and localized administration. Injection can be performed by any means, for example by subcutaneous, intradermal, intramuscular, intravenous, intraperitoneal, intratumoral, intravascular, intraarterial injection or by direct injection into an artery (e.g. by hepatic artery infusion) or a vein feeding liver (e.g. injection into the portal vein). Injections can be made with conventional syringes and needles, or any other appropriate devices available in the art. Alternatively the composition of the present invention may be administered via a mucosal route, such as the oral/alimentary, nasal, intratracheal, intrapulmonary, intravaginal or intra-rectal route. Administration in the respiratory tract can be performed through nebulisation or aerosolization of droplet, spray, or dry powdered compositions using a pressured container (e.g. with a suitable propellant such as dichlorodifluoromethane, propane, nitrogen and the like), or in a non-pressurized dispenser. Topical administration can also be performed using transdermal means (e.g. patch and the like). In the context of the invention, intramuscular and subcutaneous administrations constitute the preferred routes.

The composition of the invention can be in various forms, e.g. solid, liquid or frozen. Solid (e.g. dry powdered or lyophilized) compositions can be obtained by a process involving vacuum drying and freeze-drying. For mucosal administration, the compositions can be formulated as gastroresistant capsules and granules for oral administration, suppositories for rectal or vaginal administration, eventually in combination with absorption enhancers useful to increase the pore size of the mucosal membranes. Such absorption enhancers are typically substances having structural similarities to the phospholipid domains of the mucosal membranes such as sodium deoxycholate, sodium glycocholate, dimethyl-beta-cyclodextrin, lauroyl-l-lysophosphatidylcholine).

The appropriate dosage can be adapted as a function of various parameters, in particular the mode of administration; the composition employed; the age, health, and weight of the host organism; the nature and extent of symptoms; kind of concurrent treatment; the frequency of treatment; and/or the need for prevention or therapy. Further refinement of the calculations necessary to determine the appropriate dosage for treatment is routinely made by a practitioner, in the light of the relevant circumstances. For general guidance, suitable dosage for a virus-comprising composition (e.g. adenovirus particles) varies from about 105 to 1013 in (infectious units), desirably from about 107 and 1012 iu. A composition based on vector plasmids may be administered in (loses of between 10 μg and 20 mg, advantageously between 100 μg and 2 mg. A protein composition may be administered in one or more doses of between 10 ng and 20 mg, with a special preference for a dosage from about 0.1 μg to about 2 mg of the therapeutic protein per kg body weight. The administration may take place in a single dose or a dose repeated one or several times after a certain time interval.

The pharmaceutical composition of the invention may be employed in methods for treating a variety of diseases and pathologic conditions, especially those associated with an HCV infection. As used herein, the term “treatment” or “treating” encompasses prophylaxis and/or therapy. It is especially useful for treating HCV persistent infection and liver cancer in HCV-infected patients. The term “cancer” encompasses any cancerous conditions including diffuse or localized tumors, metastasis, cancerous polyps as well as preneoplastic lesions (e.g. cirrhosis). Preferably, upon introduction into a host organism according to the modalities described herein, the composition of the invention provides a therapeutic benefit to the treated host. The term “host organism” is intended to encompass any animal, particularly mammal, such as any murine, rat, bovine, porcine, canine, feline, equine, monkey or human subject, for example a human infected with HCV. The therapeutic benefit can be evidenced by a number of ways, for instance a decrease of HCV viremia detected in blood, plasma or sera of an infected individual as compared to before treatment, and/or by the detection of an anti-HCV immune response (e.g. production of anti-HCV antibodies and/or T cell-mediated immunity) or by the delay of the symptoms associated with an HCV infection (e.g. delay in the development of liver cirrhosis or cancer), or by a decrease of liver inflammation/steatosis/fibrosis conditions typically associated with HCV infection or by an improved response of the individual to conventional therapies.

Accordingly, the present invention also encompasses the use of the fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell or composition of the invention for the preparation of a drug intended for treating or preventing HCV infections, HCV-associated diseases and pathologic conditions, according to the modalities described above.

The present invention also provides a method for the treatment or prevention of a human or animal organism, comprising administering to said organism a therapeutically effective amount of the fusion protein, the nucleic acid molecule, the vector, the infectious viral particle, the host cell or the composition of the invention.

If desired, the method of the invention can be carried out in conjunction with one or more conventional therapeutic modalities (e.g. radiation, chemotherapy and/or surgery). The use of multiple therapeutic approaches provides the patient with a broader based intervention. In one embodiment, the method of the invention can be preceded or followed by a surgical intervention. In another embodiment, it can be preceded or followed by radiotherapy (e.g. gamma radiation). Those skilled in the art can readily formulate appropriate radiation therapy protocols and parameters which can be used (see for example Perez and Brady, 1992, Principles and Practice of Radiation Oncology, 2nd Ed. JB Lippincott Co; using appropriate adaptations and modifications as will be readily apparent to those skilled in the field).

In still another embodiment, the method or use of the invention is associated to chemotherapy with one or more HCV drugs which are conventionally used for treating or preventing HCV infections, HCV-associated diseases and pathologic conditions. Representative examples of HCV drugs include without limitation protease inhibitors (e.g. serine protease inhibitors such as VX950 of Vertex), polymerase inhibitors, helicase inhibitors, antifibrotics, nucleoside analogs, TLR agonists, N-glycosylation inhibitors, siRNA, antisense oligonucleotides, anti-HCV antibodies, immune modulators, therapeutic vaccines and antitumor agents usually used in the treatment of HCV-associated hepatocarcinomas (e.g. adriamycin or a mixture of adriamycin lipiodol and spougel usually administered by chimioembolisation in the hepatic artery). For example, therapeutic vaccines include recombinant antigens, VLPs, vectors or synthetic peptides based on or encoding HCV structural proteins (Core, envelope E1 and/or E2) which are particularly suited to trigger an anti-HCV humoral response. Such HCV drugs can be provided in a single dose or, alternatively, in multiple doses according to standard protocols, dosages and regimens over several hours, days and/or weeks. Their administration may precede, be concomitant, or subsequent to the administration of the composition of the invention. A particularly suitable combination includes treatment with pegylated IFN-α2a (e.g. at a dose of 10 μg/week) and/or ribavirin (e.g. at 800 to 1200 mg/day) for 24 to 48 weeks, before, in parallel or subsequently to the method of the invention.

In another embodiment, the method or use of the invention is carried out according to a prime boost therapeutic modality which comprises sequential administration of one or more primer composition(s) and one or more booster composition(s). Typically, the priming and the boosting compositions use different vehicles which comprise or encode at least an antigenic domain in common. The priming composition is initially administered to the host organism and the boosting composition is subsequently administered to the same host organism after a period varying from one day to twelve months. The method of the invention may comprise one to ten sequential administrations of the priming composition followed by one to ten sequential administrations of the boosting composition. Desirably, injection intervals are a matter of one week to six months. Moreover, the priming and boosting compositions can be administered at the same site or at alternative sites by the same route or by different routes of administration. For example, compositions based on polypeptide can be administered by a mucosal route whereas compositions based on vectors are preferably injected, e.g. subcutaneous injection for a MVA vector, intramuscular injection for a DNA plasmid and for an adenoviral vector.

In the context of the invention, a composition of the invention is used to either prime or boost or both prime and boost an anti-HCV immune response. Preferred priming compositions of the invention are preferably those comprising a fusion-encoding adenoviral vector/virus and a fusion encoding plasmid DNA. Fusion-encoding MVA vectors/virus are preferably used for boosting. On the other hand, recombinantly-produced fusion protein can be used independently for priming or boosting. For example, one may prime with a recombinantly-produced fusion protein having the amino acid sequence shown in SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10 and boost with an adenoviral vector encoding such a fusion protein. As another example, one may prime with a DNA plasmid encoding a fusion protein having the amino acid sequence shown in SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10 and boost with MVA virus particles encoding such a fusion protein.

It is also possible to use the composition of the invention in combination with any of the prior art material encoding or comprising an antigenic domain in common with the composition of the invention (e.g. an antigenic domain of NS3, NS4B and/or NS5B polypeptide). The source of such material is wide and includes without limitation peptides, proteins, viral vector from a variety of viruses, plasmid DNA, proteinaceous particles such as virus-like particles (Bursts et al., 1994, Mol. Biol. Techno. 1, 137-145), cellular materials such as irradiated cells, virus particles, etc. For example, particularly appropriate vectors useful in this context are the adenoviral and MVA vectors described in WO2004/111082 which encode NS3, NS4 and NS5B. As another example, the peptides described in WO03/097677 comprising antigenic domains of NS3, NS4B and NS5B are also useful in the context of the invention. For illustrative purposes, one may prime with the adenovirus particles of WO2004/111082 and subsequently boost with the recombinantly-produced fusion protein of SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10 or with the MVA vector/virus encoding the fusion protein of SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10 as defined above. As another example, one may prime with a DNA plasmid encoding the fusion protein of SEQ ID NO: 9 or SEQ ID NO: 10, and boost with the MVA vector of WO2004/111082.

However other prime boost combinations are also possible in the context of the invention.

The present invention also provides a method of inducing or stimulating an immune response against HCV in a host organism comprising administering to said organism the fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell or composition of the invention so as to induce or stimulate said immune response. The immune response can be a specific and/or a nonspecific, a humoral and/or a cell-mediated response. The immune response is preferably a T cell response directed to an HCV antigen.

The ability of the method of the invention to induce or stimulate an anti-HCV immune response upon administration in an animal or human organism can be evaluated either in vitro or in vivo using a variety of assays which are standard in the art. For a general description of techniques available to evaluate the onset and activation of an immune response, see for example Coligan et al. (1992 and 1994, Current Protocols in Immunology; ed J Wiley & Sons Inc, National Institute of Health). Measurement of cellular immunity can be performed by measurement of cytokine profiles secreted by activated effector cells including those derived from CD4d- and CD8+ T-cells (e.g. quantification of IL-10 or IFNg-producing cells by ELIspot), by determination of the activation status of immune effector cells (e.g. T cell proliferation assays by a classical [3H] thymidine uptake), by assaying for antigen-specific T lymphocytes in a sensitized subject (e.g. peptide-specific lysis in a cytotoxicity assay). The ability to stimulate a humoral response may be determined by antibody binding and/or competition in binding (see for example Harlow, 1989, Antibodies, Cold Spring Harbor Press). The method of the invention can also be further validated in animal models challenged with an appropriate infectious or tumor-inducing agent (e.g. a vaccinia virus expressing NS genes) to determine neutralization of the infectious or tumor-inducing agent and eventually partial resistance to the associated symptoms, reflecting an induction or an enhancement of an anti-HCV immune response. Testing and validation of the compositions of the invention are also illustrated in the appended Example section.

The invention also provides antibodies that selectively bind to the fusion protein of the present invention or peptide fragments thereof. As used herein, an antibody selectively binds a target peptide when it binds the target peptide and does not significantly bind to unrelated proteins. In certain cases, it would be understood that antibody binding to the peptide is still selective despite some degree of cross-reactivity. It is nonetheless preferred that the antibody of the invention does not bind with high affinity or high selectivity to individual native NS polypeptides and to fusions of NS polypeptides configured in a native configuration.

As used herein, an antibody is defined in terms consistent with that recognized within the art. The antibodies of the present invention include polyclonal antibodies and monoclonal antibodies, as well as fragments of such antibodies, including, but not limited to, Fab or F(ab′).sub.2, and Fv fragments. Antibodies of the present invention can be produced using conventional techniques in the art, e.g. following administering to an animal an effective amount of a fusion protein of the present invention and/or a peptide fragment thereof. Antibodies are preferably prepared from regions or discrete fragments of the fusion protein of the invention comprising unique sequences, such as the ones overlapping the fusion site between the NS4A and the NS3 polypeptides and the NS3 and NS5B polypeptides.

Antibodies of the present invention have a variety of potential uses that are within the scope of the present invention. For example, such antibodies can be used (a) as reagents in assays to detect a fusion protein of the present invention, (b) as reagents in assays to detect the presence of a HCV virus in a biological sample, and/or (c) as tools to recover the recombinantly-produced fusion protein of the present invention from a mixture of proteins and other contaminants (e.g. by permitting purification by affinity chromatography or immunoprecipitation from cultured host cells).

The present invention also relates to a method for the detection and/or quantification an HCV virus or an anti-HCV antibody in a biological sample (e.g. plasma, serum, tissue) taken from an individual susceptible to be infected by said HCV virus using the fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell, composition or antibody of the invention.

In one embodiment, the method is more particularly suited for the detection and/or quantification an HCV virus in a biological sample and comprises at least the steps of bringing said biological sample into contact with at least one of the antibodies of the invention under conditions allowing the formation of a complex between the virus and the antibody and detecting and/or quantifying the formation of said complex by any appropriate means.

In another embodiment, the method is more particularly suited for the detection and/or quantification an anti-HCV antibody in a biological sample and comprises at least the steps of bringing said biological sample into contact with at least one of the fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell, composition of the invention under conditions allowing the formation of a complex between the anti-HCV antibody and the fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell, composition of the invention and detecting and/or quantifying the formation of said complex by any appropriate means.

A person skilled in the art will easily determine the quantity of antibody, fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell, composition to be used in the methods of the invention. The means of detection and/or quantification of the virus are routine and well known to a person skilled in the art. By way of illustration, one may mention blots, ELISA, so-called sandwich techniques, competition techniques, and PCR techniques, in particular so called “real-time” techniques. The use of an antibody, fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell, or composition of the present invention as reagent can be facilitated by coupling (i.e., physically linking) to a detectable substance. Examples of detectable substances include various enzymes (e.g. horseradish peroxidase, alkaline phosphatase, beta-galactosidase or acetylcholinesterase), prosthetic groups (e.g. streptavidin/biotin, or avidin/biotin), fluorescent materials (e.g. umbelliferone, fluorescein, or fluorescein derivatives), luminescent materials, bioluminescent materials (e.g. luciferase, luciferin, or acquorin), and radioactive materials (e.g. 125I, 131I, 35S or 3H).

Finally, the invention relates to the use of the fusion protein, nucleic acid molecule, vector, infectious viral particle, host cell, composition, or antibody of the invention for the in vitro diagnosis of an HCV infection in a biological sample.

The invention has been described in an illustrative manner, and it is to be understood that the terminology which has been used is intended to be in the nature of words of description rather than of limitation. Obviously, many modifications and variations of the present invention are possible in light of the above teachings. It is therefore to be understood that within the scope of the appended claims, the invention may be practiced in a different way from what is specifically described herein.

All of the above cited disclosures of patents, publications and database entries are specifically incorporated herein by reference in their entirety to the same extent as if each such individual patent, publication or entry were specifically and individually indicated to be incorporated by reference.

LEGENDS OF FIGURES

FIG. 1 illustrates the amino acid sequence of a NS4A-3-5B fusion protein (SEQ ID NO:9). Added or modified amino acid residues are underlined whereas replaced native residues are shown below the sequence.

FIG. 2 illustrates the amino acid sequence of a NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion protein (SEQ ID NO:10). Added or modified amino acid residues are underlined whereas replaced native residues are shown below the sequence.

FIG. 3 illustrates the nucleotide sequence encoding the NS4A-3-5B fusion protein (and its complement (SEQ ID NOs. 21 and 22) and the corresponding amino acid sequence (SEQ ID NO:9)) optimized for expression in mammalian cells.

FIG. 4 illustrates the nucleotide sequence encoding the NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion protein (and its complement (SEQ ID NOs. 23 and 24) and the corresponding amino acid sequence (SEQ ID NO:10)) optimized for expression in mammalian cells.

FIG. 5 illustrates the nucleotide sequence encoding the NS4A-3-5B fusion protein (and its complement (SEQ ID NOs. 25 and 26) and the corresponding amino acid sequence (SEQ ID NO:9)) optimized for expression in yeast cells.

FIG. 6 illustrates the nucleotide sequence encoding the NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion protein (and its complement (SEQ ID NOs. 27 and 28) and the corresponding amino acid sequence (SEQ ID NO:10)) optimized for expression in yeast cells.

FIG. 7 illustrates the nucleotide sequence encoding the NS4A-3-5B fusion protein (and its complement (SEQ ID NOs. 29 and 30) and the corresponding amino acid sequence (SEQ ID NO:9)) optimized for expression in prokaryotic cells.

FIG. 8 illustrates the nucleotide sequence encoding the NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion protein (and its complement (SEQ ID NOs. 31 and 32) and the corresponding amino acid sequence (SEQ ID NO:10)) optimized for expression in prokaryotic cells.

FIG. 9 illustrates the schematic design of the fission proteins NS4A-3-5B and NS4A-3-4B-5B illustrated in the following Examples. A, B, C, D and E represent antigenic domains which can be predicted in NS3, NS4B and NS5B polypeptides (see WO03/097677).

FIG. 10 illustrates the schematic construction of gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs and the gWiz NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs expression vectors.

FIG. 11 illustrates the in vitro expression by Western blot following transfection of Huh-7 cells with gWiz NS4A-3-5B (A lane 1 and C lane 3), gWiz NS4A-3-4B-5B (B lane 1 and C lane 2) and gWiz (A lane 2, B lane 2 and C lane 1) plasmids. Transfected Huh-7 cells were lysed at 48 h after transfection and fusion proteins were detected by Western blot analysis using mouse monoclonal anti-NS3 (A and B) or mouse monoclonal anti-NS5B (C) antibodies.

FIG. 12 illustrates the evaluation of CD8+ T cell responses specific of NS3 by IFNγ EISPOT assay following intramuscular injection of gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs. Splenocytes of individual mouse were cultured in the presence of NS3 specific peptide GLL or an irrelevant peptide for 40 h. Results are shown as the mean value of the number of spots detected for 106 splenocytes obtained for triplicate wells. M1, M2, M3 and M4 represent 4 mice immunized with the gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs. Mc is a control mouse.

FIG. 13 illustrates expression of the fusion proteins from adenovirus-infected cells. A549 cells (1.5×106 cells) were infected at a MOI of 10 with different adenoviruses, respectively the fusion-expressing adenoviruses AdTG17476 and AdTG17477, as well as an empty adenovirus and an irrelevant recombinant adenovirus as negative controls. Cells were cultured for 48 h with 10% serum before being lysed with Laemmli buffer. Protein samples (1/20 volume) were loaded on a SDS PAGE electrophoresis gel. The proteins were detected by Coomnassie Blue. Lane 1: molecular weight markers; Lane 2: non-infected A549 cells; Lane 3: A 549 cells infected with empty adenovirus; Lane 4: A 549 cells infected with an irrelevant adenovirus; Lane 5: A 549 cells infected with AdTG17476; and Lane 6: A 549 cells infected with AdTG17477.

FIG. 14 illustrates IFNγ Elispot responses induced with Ad HCV fusion proteins in HLA-A2.1 transgenic mice. AdTG17476, AdTG17477 or Empty Ad were injected intra-muscularly in the tibialis anterior muscle 1 time at a dose of 109 IU/mouse. Cellular immune responses were investigated 2 weeks after injection by IFNγ ELISPOT for each animal group (including 4 mice for test groups and 2 mice for control group). Responses of individual mice (M1 to 4) against NS3-specific HLA-A2 restricted epitopes GLL (FIG. 14A) and KLT (FIG. 14B) and NS5B-specific HLA-A2 restricted epitope KLQ (FIG. 14C) are presented. The irrelevant peptide DLM is used as negative control. An ELISPOT response is considered as positive if the number of spots for 106 splenocytes is greater than 50 (cut-off line).

The following examples serve to illustrate the present invention.

EXAMPLES

Materials and Methods

The constructs described below are prepared according to the general techniques of genetic engineering and of molecular cloning, as detailed in Sambrook et al. (2001, Molecular Cloning; A Laboratory Manual, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, Cold Spring Harbor N.Y.) or according to the manufacturer's recommendations when a commercial kit is used. The PCR amplification techniques are known to those skilled in the art (see for example PCR Protocols—A guide to Methods and applications, 1990; Ed Innis, Gelfand, Sninsky and White, Academic Press Inc). The human Huh-7 hepatoma cell line was used to evaluate the correct expression of the fusion proteins from the constructs described in the examples which follow. The culturing conditions are conventional in the art. For illustrative purposes, the cells are grown at 37° C. in 5% CO2 atmosphere in complete DMEM medium containing Dulbecco's modified Eagles medium supplemented with 10% Fetal Calf Serum, 2 mM L-Glutamine and 100 IU/ml penicillin/streptomycins (Sigma). Cells are transfected using the Lipofectamine Plus reagent (Invitrogen) and according to the manufacturer instructions. Murine monoclonal antibodies directed to NS3 and NS5B can be purchased commercially or can be prepared according to techniques conventional in the art.

Plasmids Constructions

Overlapping oligonucleotides were used to generate synthetic genes (GeneART, Regensburg, Germany) encoding respectively NS4A-NS3-NS5B (3666 nucleotides) and NS4A-NS3-NS4B-NS5B (3747 nucleotides) fusions proteins. The design of the fusions is illustrated in FIG. 9. The nucleotide sequences were optimized for high expression in homo sapiens (SEQ ID NO: 11 and 12 and FIGS. 3 and 4), Pichia (SEQ ID NO: 13 and 14 and FIGS. 5 and 6) and E. coli (SEQ ID NO: 15 and 16 and FIGS. 7 and 8). The amino acid sequence of the resulting fusions is illustrated in SEQ ID NO: 9 for NS4A-NS3-NS5B and in SEQ ID NO: 10 for NS4A-NS3-NS4B-NS5B. Each of the synthetic nucleotide sequences was cloned into the SacI and KpnI restriction sites of the pPCR-Script plasmid (Stratagene).

For transient expression in mammalian cells, the fusion-encoding synthetic genes optimized for expression in homo sapiens (SEQ ID NO: 11-12 and FIGS. 3 and 4) were inserted into the SacI and NotI restriction sites of gWiz expression vector (Gene Therapy Systems) under the transcriptional control of the cytomegalovirus promoter, to generate gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs and the gWiz NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs vectors (FIG. 10). The sequence was then modified to improve Kozak consensus sequence (underlined) using the oligonucleotide shown in SEQ ID NO: 17 (5′-ATG TAC GTC GAC CACC ATG GGC AGC GTG GTG ATT GTG GGC CGG ATC 3′) and to create stop codons (bold) using the oligonucleotide shown in SEQ ID NO: 18 (5′-CAT GTA GC GGC CGC TCA TCA TCT AGG CCT GGC CCT GGA CAG-3′). All plasmids were verified by sequencing.

In Vitro Expression Studies

Western Blot Analysis

One day before transfection, Huh-7 (5×105 per well) were plated into 6-well plate. Cells were transfected with gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs, gWiz NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs vector or gWiz plasmid as negative control. At 48 h post-transfection, cells were lysed in 501 nM Tris-HCl, 150 mM NaCl, 0.1% SDS, 1% NP40 and 0.5% Na-deoxycholate. Lysates samples were heated at 95° C. for 5 mil and proteins were separated by electrophoresis on SDS-8% polyacrylamide. Immunoblotting was performed using murine monoclonal antibodies specific of NS3 (e.g. 8G4C3, bioMérieux) or NS5B (e.g. 11F6C8, bioMérieux) as primary antibody followed by a goat anti-mouse IgG-Peroxydase antibody (Sigma) as secondary antibody. Signals were revealed using the commercial ECL kit (Amersham Biosciences).

Immunofluorescence Analysis

One day before transfection, glass coverslips were placed into 6-well plate and treated with 0.2% Gelatin for 10 min then 5×105 Huh-7 cells were plated into each well. Cell monolayers were transfected with gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs, gWiz NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs vector or gWiz plasmid as negative control. At 48 h post-transfection, coverslips were washed twice in PBS and cells were fixed for 10 min with 4% PFA then washed and permeabilized with 0.1% Triton X-100 in PBS for 10 min. Coverslips were washed and treated with a murine monoclonal antibodies specific of NS3 (e.g. 8D8E1, bioMérieux) or NS5B (e.g. 5B-12B7 provided by D. Moradpour) as primary antibody for 1 h at room temperature. After washing, TRITC anti-mouse IgG (Dako) was added for 30 min. After washing, coverslips were mounted in 80% glycerol. Lames were observed with Carl Zeiss Axioplan microscope and images were taken with AxioCam Color digital camera.

In Vivo Expression Studies

HLA-A2.1 transgenic mice produced as described by Pascolo et al. (1997, J. of Experimental Medicine 185, 2043-2051) were bred. These mice have the 1-2 Db and murine β2-microglobulin genes knocked-out and express a transgenic mono chain histocompatibility class I molecule in which the C-terminus of the human β2m is covalently linked to the N-terminus of a chimeric heavy chain (HLA-A2.1 α1-α2, H-2 Db α3 transmembrane and intracytoplasmic domains).

Immunization Protocols

HLA-A2 transgenic mice received a pre-treatment with 10 μM cardiotoxin (Latoxan) five days before plasmids injection. gWiz NS4A-3-5B, gWIZNS4A-3-4B-5B and gWiz (negative control) plasmids were injected intramuscularly in 2 times at 2 weeks-intervals at a dose of 100 μg (in 100 μl 1×PBS). HLA-A2 restricted CD8+-T cell responses were investigated 2 weeks after the 2nd immunization such as described in Himoudi et al. (2002, J. Virol. 76, 12735-46).

Monitoring of the Immune Response by ELISPOT Assays

Splenocytes (2×105) were cultured in triplicate wells for 40 h in Multiscreen plates (Millipore) coated with anti-mouse IFNγ monoclonal antibody (Pharmingen; 10 μg/ml) in complete αMEM culture medium (Invitrogen) in presence of 10 units/ml of recombinant IL-2 (PeproTech Inc, England) alone as negative control, or 5 μg/ml T of Concavalin A as positive control or with 10 μM of peptide (DLM irrelevant peptide, GLL peptide located in the NS3 protein described in Martin et al., 2004, J. Med. Virol. 74, 397-405 and Himoudi et al., 2002, J. Virol. 76, 12735-46). IFNγ-producing cells were quantified by cytokine-specific enzyme linked immunospot assay (ELISPOT) as previously described (Himoudi et al., 2002, J. Virol. 76, 12735-46). The number of spots (representing individual IFNγ-producing cells) in negative control wells was subtracted from the number in test wells containing peptides. Results are shown as the mean value obtained for triplicate wells.

Example 1 In Vitro Expression of the NS4A-3-5B and NS4A-3-4B-5B Polyproteins

The sequences encoding the fusion proteins NS4A-3-5B and NS4A-3-4B-5B were constructed as outlined in FIG. 9. The sequences were optimized for expression in three different hosts (GeneART, Regensburg, Germany), human (Hs) Pichia pastoris (Pp) and E. coli (Ec) respectively, as listed below:

    • NS4A-3-5B Hs optimized for expression in homo sapiens (SEQ ID NO: 11 and FIG. 3)
    • NS4A-3-5B Pp optimized for expression in Pichia (SEQ ID NO: 13 and FIG. 5)
    • NS4A-3-5B Ec optimized for expression in E. coli (SEQ ID NO: 15 and FIG. 7)
    • NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs optimized for expression in homo sapiens (SEQ ID NO: 12 and FIG. 4)
    • NS4A-3-4B 5B Pp optimized for expression in Pichia (SEQ ID NO: 14 and FIG. 6)
    • NS4A-3-4B-5B Ec optimized for expression in E. coli (SEQ ID NO: 16 and FIG. 8)

The sequences optimized for expression in homo sapiens encoding the NS4A-NS3-NS4B-NS5B and NS4A-NS3-NS5B fusions were cloned in the gWiz expression vector (GeneTherapy Systems) Linder the transcriptional control of the cytomegalovirus promoter (FIG. 10). Expression of the NS fusion proteins was evaluated by Western blot and immunofluorescence in Huh-7 cells transfected with gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs, gWiz NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs vectors or gWiz plasmid as negative control.

As shown in FIG. 11, Western Blot analysis revealed a unique band having the expected molecular weight of about 135 kDa for each individual fusion (FIG. 11A lane 1, and FIG. 11C lane 3 for the short NS4A-3-5B fusion and FIG. 11B lane 1, and FIG. 11C lane 2 for the long NS4A-3-4B-5B fusion) following detection with anti-NS3 (FIGS. 11A and 7B) or anti-NS5B (FIG. 11C) specific antibodies. As expected, no proteins were detected in samples obtained from Huh-7 cells transfected with gWiz plasmid (FIG. 11A lane 2, FIG. 11B lane 2 and FIG. 11C lane 1). These results confirm that the short fusion NS4A-NS3-NS5B and the long fusion additionally incorporating NS4B are expressed in Huh-7 cells.

Immunofluorescence analysis confirmed expression of the two fusion proteins in Huh-7 transfected cells. Interestingly, both fusion proteins showed a cytoplasmic localisation suggesting a proper processing as a result of the deletion of the majority of the hydrophobic membrane anchorage domains. Cells transfected with gWiz plasmid did not display any signal.

Example 2 In Vivo Evaluation of gWIZ NS4A-3-5B Hs and NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs Immunogenicity

To evaluate the capacity of plasmids gWiz NS4A-3-5B Hs and NS4A-3-4B-5B Hs to induce CD8+-T cell responses in HLA-A2 transgenic mice, an immunogenicity study was performed following HLA-A2 transgenic mice as described in Material and Methods. HLA-TO A2 restricted CD8+-T cell responses were investigated by IFNγ ELISPOT assay 2 weeks after the 2nd immunization. As illustrated in FIG. 12, the pgWiz NS4A-3-5B was able to induce IFNγ-producing T cells specific of the HLA-A2 restricted well known and immunodominant GLL peptide (NS3 protein, Martin et al., 2004, J. Med. Virol. 74, 397-405) suggesting a correct presentation of this epitope.

It is also possible to use preclinical murine challenge assays in order to evaluate the fusion proteins for protective immunity. As mice are not able to be directly infected by HCV viruses, these assays employ either recombinant vaccinia viruses (WR strain) or Listeria expressing the HCV NS antigens. After injection of vaccinia virus or Listeria, mice develop an infection that peaks 2 to 6 days post injection resulting in virus or bacteria detected in either the ovaries (vaccinia model) or livers (Listeria model) of injected mice. Preclinical evaluation involves the vaccination of mice with the candidate vaccine (administration of the recombinant fusion protein or of adenovirus particles expressing the fusion protein), controls (e.g. administration of fusion of NS polypeptides in native configuration) and negative constructs (e.g. non-HCV antigens or empty adenovirus). The animals are subsequently challenged with a recombinant vaccinia virus expressing all of the HCV NS antigens (NS2 to NS5) or Listeria expressing one of the NS antigens included in the vaccine candidate. If the vaccine successfully primes specific T cells, challenged mice with develop immune response to the vaccinia or the Listeria vector and to the NS antigen(s). The protective activity of the candidate vaccine will result in decreased vaccinia or Listeria titers as measured in the ovaries or livers of the vaccinated mice as compared with vaccinia or Listeria titers measured in the ovaries or livers of the non-vaccinated mice.

Example 3 Expression of the NS4A-3-5B and NS4A-3-4B-5B Fusion Protein in Mammalian Cells

The fusion-encoding synthetic genes optimized for expression in homo sapiens (SEQ ID NO: 11-12), corresponding to NS4A-NS3-NS5B (3666 nucleotides) and NS4A-NS3-NS4B-NS5B (3747 nucleotides), were amplified by PCR from the corresponding pPCR-Script plasmids, using the following primers OTG18033 (GGGGGGCTAGCGCCACCATGGGCAGCGTGGTGATTG; SEQ ID NO: 19) and OTG18036 (GGGGGGGTACCCTCATCATCTAGGCCTGGCCCTG; SEQ ID NO: 20). Both fragments were inserted into the NheI and KpnI restriction sites of an adenoviral shuttle plasmid containing a CMV-driven expression cassette sulfonamide by adenoviral sequences (adenoviral nucleotides 1-458 and nucleotides 3328-5788 respectively) to allow generation of the vector genome by homologous recombination (Chartier et al., 1996, J. Virol. 70, 4805-4810). The resulting adenoviral vectors are E3 (nucleotides 28592-30470) and E1 (nucleotides 459-3511) deleted, with the E1 region replaced by the expression cassette containing, from 5′ to 3′, the CMV intermediate-early enhancer/promoter, a chimeric human β-globin/IgG intron (as found in pCI vector available in Promega), the sequence encoding either of the two polyprotein forms and the SV40 late polyadenylation signal. The resulting adenoviral vectors were named pTG17476 (NS4A-3-4B-5B) and pTG17477 (NS4A-3-5B). The recombinant adenoviruses, AdTGT7476 and AdTG17477, were generated by transfecting the PacI linearized viral genomes into a conventional E1 complementation cell line. Virus propagation, purification and titration were made as described previously (Erbs, 2000, Cancer Res. 60, 3813-3822).

Expression of the fusion proteins was evaluated in adenovirus infected cells by SDS PAGE electrophoresis. A549 cells (1.5×106 cells) (ATCC CCL-185) were infected at a MOI of 10 or 100 with the fusion-expressing adenoviruses AdTG17476 and AdTG17477, as well as an empty adenovirus and an irrelevant recombinant adenovirus as negative controls. Cells were cultured for 48 h with 10% serum before being lysed with Laemmli buffer. Protein samples (1/20 volume) were loaded on a SDS PAGE electrophoresis gel and the proteins were stained by Coomassie Blue. As illustrated in FIG. 13, a unique band having the expected molecular weight of approximately 135 kDa was clearly observed in cells infected with AdTG17476 and AdTG17477 (Lanes 5 and 6), reflecting high expression levels in cells infected with the fusion-encoding adenovirus vectors. On the other hand, this band is lacking in the samples collected from the cells infected with the negative controls (Lanes 3 and 4) as well as in non infected A549 cells (Lane 2).

Expression levels were analysed by Western Blot in the A549 cells infected with the viral constructs at MOI of 10 for 48 hours. The cell pellets were collected and probed with an anti-NS3 murine monoclonal antibody (e.g. 1B6, bioMerieux) and an anti-NS4 rabbit polyclonal antibody (e.g. RB, bioMerieux). A major band having the expected molecular weight was revealed in the samples collected from cells infected with AdTG17476 and AdTG17477 following detection with the anti-NS3 or anti-NS4 specific antibodies, confirming the high expression levels detected following Coomassie Blue staining.

Example 4 Immunogenicity of Adenoviruses Expressing the HCV Polyproteins in HLA A2 Transgenic Mice

Animal Model

HLA-A2.1 transgenic mice were produced as described by Pascolo et al. (1997, J Ex Med). These mice have the H-2Db and murine β2-microglobulin genes knocked-out and express a transgenic monochain histocompatibility class I molecule in which the C-terminus of the human β2m is covalently linked to the N-terminus of a chimeric heavy chain (HLA-A2.1 α1-α2, H-2Db α3 transmembrane and intracytoplasmic domains).

Immunization Protocol

Three groups of mice were included in the protocol, respectively four mice injected with AdTG17476 (Ad NS4A-3-4B-5B), four mice injected with AdTG17477 (Ad NS4A-3-5B) and two control mice injected with an empty Ad (Ad1514). Adenoviruses were injected intra-muscularly in the tibialis anterior muscle 1 time at a dose of 109 IU in 100 μl of 1×PBS. Cellular immune responses were investigated 2 weeks after injection.

Monitoring of the Immune Response

ELISPOT Assays

Splenocytes from mice of each group were collected and red blood cells were lysed. 2.105 cells were cultured in triplicate wells for 40 h in Multiscreen plates (Millipore) coated with anti-mouse IFNγ monoclonal antibody (Pharmingen; 10 μg/ml) in complete αMEM culture medium (GIBCO BRL) in presence of 10 units/ml of recombinant murine IL-2 (PeproTech Inc, England), alone as negative control, or with 10 μM of peptide (DLM irrelevant peptide, GLL and KLT peptides located in the NS3 protein, KLQ peptide located in NS5B protein (Martin et al., 2004, J Med Virol. 74, 397-405) and (Himoudi et al., 2002, J Virol., 76, 12735-12746), or 5 μg/ml of Concavalin A as positive control. IFNγ-producing T cells were quantified by cytokine-specific enzyme linked immunospot assay (ELISPOT) as previously described (Himoudi et al., J Virol 2002). The number of spots (representing individual IFNγ-producing T cell) in negative control wells was subtracted from the number in test wells containing peptides. Results are shown as the mean value obtained for triplicate wells.

Results

HLA-A2 restricted T cell responses were investigated by IFNγ ELISPOT assay 2 weeks after adenovirus immunization. As shown in FIG. 14, both AdTG17476 and AdTG17477 were able to induce, in all vaccinated animals, high frequencies of IFNγ-producing T cells specific of the HLA-A2 restricted GLL epitope (FIG. 14A; median value: 1210 and 868 spots, respectively) with a statistically significant higher efficiency for AdTG17476 (Mann-Whitney test: P=0,0209). Both viruses induced also IFNγ-producing T cells specific of the subdominant KLT epitope (FIG. 14B) with lower frequencies (median value: 187 and 90 spots). In addition, 2:4 mice vaccinated with AdTG17476 and 1:4 mice vaccinated with AdTG17477 developed responses targeting the KLQ epitope of the NS5B protein (FIG. 14C).

This demonstrates that fusion proteins in accordance with the invention can be produced at high levels in eukaryotic systems and that the resulting proteins are immunogenic in conventional model animals.

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Classifications
U.S. Classification424/228.1, 435/69.1, 435/325
International ClassificationC12N7/00, A61K39/29
Cooperative ClassificationC12N2770/24221, C07K14/005, C12N2770/24222, C12N7/00, C07K2319/00, A61K39/00, A61K2039/525, C12N2710/10343
European ClassificationC07K14/005, C12N7/00
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